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associative array

n. (context computing English) One of a number of array-like data structures, where the index (called (term key keys)) are not limited to integers.

Associative array

In computer science, an associative array, map, symbol table, or dictionary is an abstract data type composed of a collection of (key, value) pairs, such that each possible key appears at most once in the collection.

Operations associated with this data type allow:

  • the addition of a pair to the collection
  • the removal of a pair from the collection
  • the modification of an existing pair
  • the lookup of a value associated with a particular key

The dictionary problem is a classic computer science problem: the task of designing a data structure that maintains a set of data during 'search', 'delete', and 'insert' operations. The two major solutions to the dictionary problem are a hash table or a search tree. In some cases it is also possible to solve the problem using directly addressed arrays, binary search trees, or other more specialized structures.

Many programming languages include associative arrays as primitive data types, and they are available in software libraries for many others. Content-addressable memory is a form of direct hardware-level support for associative arrays.

Associative arrays have many applications including such fundamental programming patterns as memoization and the decorator pattern.