Sunday, February 04, 2007


The dictionary

“I'll look it up in the dictionary,” we say, as though there were such a thing as the dictionary. In fact, there are many dictionaries published by many companies, and they're of varying thoroughness and accuracy. In America we think of “Webster's” as an indication of some sort of quality standard, after legendary lexicographer Noah Webster. But there's no trademark on his name, and any dictionary can call itself “Webster's” — it's indicative of nothing.

There is a company called Merriam-Webster, formerly G&C Merriam, and they have a line of well-respected dictionaries. Random House is another popular American effort, and American Heritage, published by Houghton Mifflin is another. The American Heritage line are my favourites, mostly because of the wonderful “usage notes” that appear throughout, explaining some of the thornier issues — this dictionary doesn't just define the words, it also helps you figure out how to use them correctly. There are usage notes about “which” vs “that”, and “who” vs “whom”, for example.

I remember when I was a child and American Heritage was the first to include “the F-word” among its entries. It listed seven meanings, all labelled “vulgar”. After the obvious literal definition they listed compound versions, a series that went something like this: “To damage, to fail, to err; used with up. To mistreat; used with over. To meddle, interfere; used with with.” We were young, and we were very much amused. And while we looked for that entry, we saw a few other words, new words that we learned.

I stopped in a co-worker's office to say “hey” one morning long ago, and found him looking something up in the dictionary he had in his office. I asked what he was looking up and he told me, and explained that he had been reading the “Wordpower” column in Reader's Digest the night before, encountered the word there, and wanted to look it up for more information. As he didn't have a dictionary at home, he was looking it up now, in the office.

“You don't have one at home?”, I asked, incredulous. “You have two children in school, and you don't have a dictionary?” Now, this was around 1986, when we didn't have dictionaries readily available on our computers, and it seemed to me to be tantamount to child neglect. But even today, when I have the Concise OED on my laptop, and access to over the Internet, I can't imagine replacing the books. I use the online ones all the time, to be sure, but I also use the books, and enjoy the accidental learning that comes from running across an entry or two on the way to the one I'm aiming for, as I did as a child. N0w, as then, I often spent half an hour or more browsing, sometimes even forgetting what I'd meant to look up in the first place.

PHSIII, a friend who grew up in Canada, the son of a linguistics professor, tells a story of a time in grade school when his teacher gave the class an assignment: go home and count the dictionaries in your house. Most kids came back with an answer between zero and two. A few had three or four. PHSIII's answer was twenty, an answer that the teacher refused to believe. His father had to talk to the teacher to assure her that he wasn't lying, that there were, indeed, twenty dictionaries in the Smith household.

My own answer to that now is eight, not quite up to the high standard of twenty. I have an American Heritage Third Edition that lives next to my bed, and an American Heritage Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary that's on the coffee table in the living room (that one was available for too-short a time in the late 1980s). Other rooms have the “collegiate” versions of American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Random House, the Oxford Reference Dictionary (one has to have at least one British dictionary, after all), a 1963 World Book dictionary that goes with the World Book Encyclopedia from the same year, and a paperback pocket dictionary from American Heritage. A dictionary in every room, and two in some.

I've been known to give — and get — dictionaries as gifts. I've been known to pick up a dictionary and browse even when there wasn't anything I particularly wanted to look up. I still get lots of delight from the discovery of a word, of a sense of a word I hadn't known before, of an etymology that's new to me.

It's rare that I open a dictionary and fail to learn something. What a delightful book, the dictionary.


The Ridger, FCD said...

If you want usage, Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of American English - or the full-sized, but the concise is newer - is great. They give you long histories and let you decide. Longman's American English is great, too - it has really detailed argumentation examples.

Anonymous said...

Do non-English dictionaries count? And what about a thesaurus?

Barry Leiba said...

I assumed "definition" dictionaries, rather than "mapping" dictionaries. If I added the foreign-language ones, that'd add Spanish, French, German, and Russian at my house — four more. I actually do not have a thesaurus (and haven't missed it).

The Ridger, FCD said...

I do have a thesaurus, and love browsing it. I just wish people would learn how to use them - I'm convinced that a preponderance of awkward prose it created by people who just substitute words they find in the thesaurus (which is not what it was created for) without considering the argumentation of the new word. For instance, I can give you books but I can't donate you books...

Anyway, I actually have many more foreign-language dictionaries than English-English - per language.