Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My favourite dictionary

Dot Wordsworth, the Spectator’s “Mind Your Language” columnist, reviews the 12th edition of the Chambers Dictionary in the 3 September issue. She kicks off caustically:
Chambers (the apostrophe having being discarded in 1972, the year after decimal currency came in) has developed a queasy notion that it appeals to ‘Word Lovers’. ‘At Chambers, words are our passion,’ it declares, unafraid of cliché:
Our awareness that our love of language is matched by that of our users also motivated an exquisite new  supplement, The Word Lover’s Miscellany, which truly celebrates words and the word lover’s dictionary.
I can hardly believe those sentences were written by a lexicographer.
Yes, the concept of “word lover” is gruesome. But then:
There’s not much wrong that I can see with the dictionary itself. (I have not read every word.) From a single-volume dictionary most people want spelling and meanings, and these seem to be in order. Initials and proper names are included, but not place-names or personal names: so London pride but not London. (The single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English gives London, with population, and Longfellow, with dates.)  There is no tiresome lecturing on usage and acceptability. Nigger is marked ‘offensive’, like fuck. Fuckwit is included but not the historical windfucker (which even the prissy first edition of the OED got in). It would have made a nice highlighted item for Word Lovers, would it not? [ . . .]
A memory from my girlhood is of the Roman numerals and non-Roman alphabets at the back, and they are retained. The planets are given too, with their perihelia and aphelia given in AU, the meanings of which appear within. Pluto has fashionably been banished from their number — no longer one for the Word Lovers.
I sometimes have to use Oxford or, shudder, an American dictionary, but my main working dictionary is the 1981 reprint of the 1972 edition of Chambers. I have always found the lists at the back of Greek and Russian alphabets, Roman numerals, conversion tables (e.g. acres to hectares, gallons to litres), SI metric units and mathematical units wonderfully useful. The planet information is new – if you’re wondering what perihelia and aphelia might be, they are the points at which a planet is closest to and furthest from the sun. I can’t imagine why I would look that up in a dictionary – but still, nice to have.

It is time I upgraded to something more modern, but my 30-year-old copy, battered and broken as it is, has served me well. I have always loved it because it is the best for phrases, which is useful for headline writers and sub-editors in general, and because of this one definition:  
charity begins at home, usually an excuse for not allowing it to get abroad.
A dictionary that does maths and has an attitude and a sense of humour is my kind of dictionary.

1 comment:

helenalex said...

I inherited a copy of a 1920s pocket Oxford dictionary from my grandmother, and have hung onto it solely because it defines masturbation as 'bodily self-pollution'. It's hard to imagine that the definition ever helped anyone work out what it was.