A way with words

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Geoff Barton enlists some local help to survey the current landscape of English dictionaries, 250 years after Samuel Johnson penned his extraordinary work

Oxford Primary Dictionary pound;9.99

Oxford Junior Rhyming Dictionary pound;10.99

Collins Primary Illustrated Dictionary pound;10.99 (hb) pound;8.99 (pb)

Collins Primary Dictionary pound;7.99

Jolly Dictionary

Jolly Learning pound;5.95

Black's Rhyming and Spelling Dictionary

AC Black pound;6.99

Chambers Primary Rhyming Dictionary pound;5.99

Collins Student's Dictionary pound;6.99. Collins School Dictionary ("Gem") pound;4.50

Collins School Dictionary pound;9.99 (hb) pound;5.99 (pb)

Chambers Mini School Dictionary pound;2.99

Chambers School Dictionary pound;5.99

Chambers Study Dictionary pound;7.49

Chambers Pocket Dictionary pound;6.74

Oxford School Dictionary and Thesaurus pound;7.99

Pocket Oxford English Dictionary pound;9.99

Cambridge Learner's Dictionary pound;11.90

You have to take your hat off to Samuel Johnson, whose first English dictionary is 250 years old this year. When he wasn't dazzling London with his conversational repartee, or kicking gravestones to demonstrate to new age philosophers that, of course, the world does not exist only in our minds, he was also penning the first English dictionary.

That first edition, which we are reliably informed weighed the same as a large turkey, consisted of 2,300 pages. It cost pound;410, which would be around pound;300 today. The good Dr Johnson harvested some 42,773 words for which he was paid a handsome (something he wasn't, by all accounts) pound;1,575 - around pound;10,000 today.

So here's a survey of the current landscape of dictionaries, many of which are designed particularly for school use. Making comparisons is tricky, because our taste in dictionaries is often as personal as our taste in fiction - with dictionaries so much comes down to layout and presentation.

So, to add a little credibility and nudge us away from my own dictionary obsessions, I've called for the first impressions of someone who straddles the target readership, one Nicholas Barton (aged 12) who was persuaded that it was a privilege to be asked to compare so many dictionaries and may, in due course, wish to look up the word "duped".


Developing pupils' skills and confidence in using dictionaries is part of the primary strategy from the earliest years. This is when we want our pupils to develop a love of books and to learn how to use a dictionary.

Publishers respond with a collection of vivid and varied texts. The Oxford Primary Dictionary shows its Johnsonian roots by including many citations from literature. Topically, many of these come from Harry Potter and other popular children's books ("Malfoy gave Professor Lupin an insolent stare".

Definition: "Very rude and insulting"). The visual mix of two-colour printing, boxes for word origins and word families makes it very easy to use.

Collins Primary Dictionary (for ages nine and above) is similarly clear and lucid, although primary teachers may be attracted to the illustrated version (eight and above). While this doesn't have pictures on every page, the images are used judiciously and not just for decorative purposes. For the definition of "rook" for example, the description "a chess piece that can move any number of squares in a straight but not diagonal line" has a picture that really helps our understanding.

Then there's the Jolly Dictionary, which blends development of children's dictionary skills with their distinctive emphasis of teaching synthetic phonics. There's no reference to "insolent", but here's how it explains "infection": "infecshen: an illness caused by germs". The book begins with a colourful picture section, designed to teach pupils about word classes, and a code to demonstrate pronunciation. The main dictionary uses cartoon images for decoration. It's hard to imagine they are for educational reasons - for example, the definition of a cow is accompanied by a picture of a cow. Since I think we can assume most readers will know what a cow looks like, the illustrations are chiefly, well, illustrative.

At primary level there are also the hybrid dictionaries, such as rhyming and spelling dictionaries, and these show more variation than their strait-laced relations. Oxford's Junior Rhyming Dictionary comes from the ubiquitous John Foster. Looking for something to rhyme with "boss"? Try "moss" or "candyfloss". Throughout, there are lively, not to say wacky, pictures and short poems by John Foster. These help to illuminate word meaning and make learning fun, as in this example for "jug": "A slimy slug drank from a jug. A grubby bug drank from a mug. Then the slug gave the bug a hug."

Shakespeare it isn't, but the rhymes throughout, and perhaps especially the illustrations (by Melanie Williamson and Rupert Van Wyk), reinforce an important sense of this being a reference book to enjoy rather than leave to gather dust.

Black's Rhyming and Spelling Dictionary has a distinguished pedigree, as one of its authors is Pie Corbett, who is well known to primary teachers and is a key architect of the National Literacy Strategy. This book has an early section on how to use a rhyming dictionary and a brief summary of different types of poetry (haiku, limericks, acrostics, and so on). The pages are organised by word endings (a page on "eece to eed" is followed by one on "eek to eeen". It's simple, colourful, and compelling.

Chambers Primary Rhyming Dictionary is a less colourful affair, using a pink and black layout with black-and-white illustrations. What is interesting is its use not of words but suffixes or rhyming sounds, such as "-ision", "-isk" and "-ister". Its unique selling point is 60 sample poems written by Benjamin Zephaniah, such as this one: "I wrote a poem with a twistAnd turned into a novelist" (helping to illustrate rhymes for "-ist".

The format is perhaps the least appealing of the bunch, but Zephaniah's presence adds a lively and often unexpected tw-ist).


The secondary market sees a huge range of dictionaries reflecting the different ages and needs of its readership. This is where we want our students to become increasingly self-reliant in finding the information they need for study. Let's start with the smallest, pocket formats. Collins Student's Dictionary packs a huge amount of information into a tight, but very clear format. It has brief definitions, guidance on usage, frequent and useful panels on usage and word history: "The first people to wear anoraks were Eskimos. In the Eskimo language anoraq means 'a piece of clothing' and denotes a long, hooded jacket made from fur such as sealskin or haribou skins". We admired the brevity of the definitions and Nick appreciated the "survival guide" at the back - a nicely-pitched summary of grammar and spelling advice.

Collins also have their small Gem format in tiny print (and I do mean tiny), ideal for quick reference, and also packing in an enormous amount of information beyond just definitions, including grammar and spelling guidance. The Chambers Mini School Dictionary does the same - an extraordinary compendium of knowledge in a format that will sit easily alongside the packed lunch (no vending machines, of course, now that they have been given the Ruth Kelly life-sentence) in the school bag.

Then there is a range of medium-sized dictionaries for classroom and home use. Collins School Dictionary has the clear format of their Student's Dictionary. The lucidity of the definitions is admirable and spot-on for the target age group (for example, "gaudy - very colourful in a vulgar way").

The Chambers School Dictionary is a direct competitor and has an attractive two-colour format. It contains brisk, mostly clear definitions ("gaudy - showy; vulgarily bright in colour") and a heavy emphasis on etymology and background to meanings. There are also regular Language Study panels on issues such as borrowed words, grammar and dialects.

The Oxford School Dictionary and Thesaurus divides each page into dictionary (top half) and thesaurus (bottom half) - a neat and easy to use format. There are examples for each definition to show usage in context and a two-tone colour scheme, which provides clarity. So, in the top half you get "fund" - "money collected or kept for a special purpose" and in the lower part you get "pool, kitty, store, reserve, cache, source and supply".

How simple is that?

The Cambridge Learner's Dictionary is similar, but with a colour picture section in the middle labelling, for example, items in the bathroom. I'm not sure what the purpose is, but "learners" may benefit from knowing that a cistern in the UK is a tank in the US. My guess is that the target audience more strongly emphasises overseas students. The advice on studying, writing and spelling is eminently sensible and useful. The real bonus for intermediate users of English is the CD, which gives pronunciation of every word, and other PC-based resources.

Next there's Chambers Study Dictionary, aimed at students aged 15 and upwards. Its distinguishing feature is a 48-page study supplement - a focused and relevant guide to writing essays and scientific reports, plus advice on paragraphing, linking ideas, and choosing the right words. It's unpatronising, pitched at the right level, and very useful.

Chambers and Oxford have their hardback pocket dictionaries, although you would need pockets like Fagan, in Oliver Twist, to carry these to school.

Both demonstrate the skill of contemporary lexicographers in providing detailed, information in a manageable format.

The Oxford puts more emphasis on word origins in most definitions (eg "jingoism - from by jingo! In a song adopted by those who supported the sending of a British fleet into Turkish waters to resist Russia in 1878"), while the Chambers uses small panels for interesting etymological facts (such as "ombudsman" being a Swedish word for "administration man"). Both would be an indispensable reference book in any classroom or study.

Independent study

Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English describes itself as "the living dictionary". It's full of illustrative examples (for example, 48 different meanings of "light", each explained with a phrase, including the rarely heard, "I set off for work with a light heart"). There are occasional pictures, panels of usage guidance, as well as a CD version with pop-up definitions and interactive exercises.

Simpler, but hugely authoritative, is the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, a two-colour production with clear headwords, pronunciation guide, real-life examples and a central supplement on "Effective English"

which provides high-level advice on writing accurately in various styles.

Then there are the heavyweights of the market, the dictionaries for fuller reference, either at school or home. These are the books we want to be able to reach for to clarify our thoughts or sharpen our expression. The Bloomsbury Concise English Dictionary was new to me. Like all of the books in this category, it's authoritative, comprehensive and contemporary.

It's an adult dictionary, with embedded guidance on spelling ("Do not confuse accede with exceed - your spelling checker will not catch this error"), occasional tiny illustrations (how glaciers are formed, what the ginseng plant looks like), usage, and biographical information. There's an impressive range of colloquial and slang words ("clobber" and "farkleberry"

jumped out, although I'll leave it to you to look up the latter in case you're eating as you read this), and a modern-feeling attention to technological words. It's full version, the Bloomsbury English Dictionary is equally impressive - an asset in any home or classroom.

The Chambers Dictionary is the official reference book for Scrabble, and benefits from a clear page design that will be useful for settling a double-letter score dispute over a word such as "zimocca" (a type of bath sponge). Its concise version is more spacious, with less dense use of text, and ideal for a student in further or higher education.

Finally, there's the Oxford Dictionary of English, which sets the standard for lucidity and sheer range of reference. There are definitions, origins, hints on usage, and an impressive quantity of biographical information.

Like its Chambers equivalent, there's also a CD-Rom version, giving users the capacity to interrogate a huge database of language.

For me - old-fangled that I am - I like a dictionary I can hold and browse through, with the unexpected pleasure of stumbling across unfamiliar words and origins (for example, I have just learned that "hantavirus" is carried by rats and causes kidney failure - another useful cocktail party opening line). With dictionaries, like cocktails, we all have our personal preferences, many to do with layout as much as content. Overall, I admire the unfussy clarity of the Oxford English Dictionary. Nick goes for the Chambers School Dictionary. However, that's as arbitrary as saying whether one flavour of apple is better than another - it comes down to how we like the texture, taste, colour and bite.

What all of these books show, is how much - in this online information age - the text has fought back, showing its versatility and, in many cases, portability. It's a reminder of what a great information technology source the humble dictionary is. Long may it last.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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