A Wonderbra but no Tampax

20th September 1996 at 01:00
CHAMBERS 21st CENTURY DICTIONARY Chambers, #163;16.99.

A pushy, good-looking trendsetter has lined up next to the respectable 'Scrabble bible' dictionary from Chambers. Jean Aitchison studies it from A to Z.

Do you wonder what the word Wonderbra means? If so, consult this new dictionary, where it is defined as "an underwired bra with side padding, designed to give uplift and a more conspicuous cleavage".

This entry gives something of the trendy flavour which Chambers has tried to build into its new word-book. Its premature label-ling as 21st-century, combined with its claim on the front flap to be "ground-breaking" suggests at first sight a brash newcomer, quite at odds with Chambers's conservative image.

Chambers, based in Edinburgh, has been producing dictionaries since 1872.The best known is the 20th Century Dictionary (first edition 1901), now renamed as the Chambers English Dictionary (eighth edition 1993), which is the official dictionary for the word-game Scrabble, and will continue.

So Chambers's well-established "Scrabble bible" is not to be confused with the new arrival from which most of the Scrabble lovers' Scottish favourites have been omitted: no trace remains of, say, dree "to endure, bear", fewter "a spear-rest" or gardyloo "the old warning cry in Edinburgh before throwing slops out of the window into the street'.

Is this new dictionary really "the essential guide to English as it is written and spoken now" (press release), as the biblical-style star on the jacket cleverly hints?

Any dictionary can be considered in three ways: content, organisation, and layout. Over content, Chambers is unexpectedly silent about how many headwords it includes, though judging from other similar-sized dictionaries, it is around 100,000. All current dictionaries make use of up-to-date databases, and this one is no exception. Numerous relatively recent words, such as automobilia, chocoholic and wimp are included, though predictably, minor holes can be spotted: yomp "march with heavy equipment over difficult terrain" (Concise Oxford Dictionary 1990) is missing, for example.

Odder, perhaps, is its selection of trade names. In principle, it is a good idea to include items such as Hoover and Wimpy which are often used as common nouns. But the inclusion of Wonderbra and Babygro ("an all-in-one stretch-fabric suit for baby", though not, say, Nescafe, Ryvita, Tampax or Dettol, makes one wonder what criteria were followed.

A phonetic transcription in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is added to each entry (as is now standard). But as a truly useful extra, symbols likely to cause confusion are given in a running "footer" at the bottom of each page, as is found in the much larger New Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1993). A further useful addition to each entry is the approximate century or decade at which a word arrived in the language, again something found in the New Shorter Oxford but not often in smaller dictionaries.

Intermittent comments about "confusibles" and controversial usages, set in boxes in the text, are a further extra. These are full of good sense, for example: "Both Moslem and Muslim are correct, but the second is now more common than the first. The term Mohammedan is considered offensive by many Muslims and is best avoided."

A split infinitive, we are wisely told, is sometimes necessary to achieve the right meaning, as in "to really get to know", though "it is prudent to avoid the split infinitive when speaking or writing to prescriptively minded people".

The organisation of the dictionary is inevitably alphabetical, but everything has been included within it. The chemical elements, for example,occur in a box within the text, instead of at the end as in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (8th edition, 1990), which contains 11 appendices. This makes it easy to see at a glance whether any information required is present or absent.

Ease of consultation is this dictionary's outstanding feature. The clean,clear layout makes it exceptionally user-friendly. The head words are in large type, the entries relatively short, with a line of space between them. Phrasal verbs are given on their own, in a tinted box after the main part of the entry. Most dictionaries are as hard to consult in a hurry as a telephone directory. This one is not only easy, but also encourages browsing.

Of course, dictionaries differ more than purchasers sometimes realise, so any buyer needs to be aware of his or her own needs. In this one, the content is not very different from that in other dictionaries - though the usage notes are helpful, and so are the phonetic symbols at the bottom of each page. The A-Z organisation with no appendices makes it seem commendably straightforward.

The layout is superb, and for this reason above all it can be highly recommended as a user-friendly educational tool for use in schools, and justifies some of the publicity hype surrounding it.

Jean Aitchison is Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford.

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