Some fine forests of facts to get lost in

5th May 1995 at 01:00
THE OXFORD ENGLISH REFERENCE DICTIONARY. Edited by Judy Pearsall and Bill Trumble. Oxford University Press Pounds 19.99 or Pounds 23.99 with thumb index. O19 8613O8 3 or O19 8613O9 1. THE HUTCHINSON CONCISE ENCYCLOPEDIC DICTIONARY. Edited by Michael Upshall. Helicon Publishing Pounds 1O.99. 1 8S986 O13 3.

Have you ever watched a child get lost in a dictionary? Not lost, as in lost their way or confused, but lost, engrossed, absorbed. I don't know why but it surprises me every time it happens.

I teach English and when a student asks me what a word means I invariably hand over a dictionary. "Find it yourself", I say. The student will often sigh and ask quite reasonably, "Why can't you just tell me?" Then, resigned to the challenge they will sit down, start browsing and discover a whole new world of words. The original inquiry may never be found because a myriad defined delights beg sweet distraction en route.

My students will enjoy delving into the new edition of The Oxford English Reference Dictionary (OERD). It's "bad", "awesome", "humungous", and positively "wicked"! No, not all my students use American slang but most of them will be entertained by its inclusion in the dictionary. On a more serious note, the OERD claims to be "a handy single-volume reference work that will serve as an index to the words, names and concepts that are of importance in the English-speaking world". "Handy" might suggest a portable little number, but the utter weight and size of this tome means that it will be staying on my desk in the classroom. With 200,000 definitions, 115,000 spellings, 4,000 biographies, 5,000 place-name entries, 1,500 science articles, 4,500 other proper-name and in-depth entries, 100 pages of appendices and a 16-page full colour world map section, this is the mother of all single-volume reference dictionaries.

To the disappointment of many students, Cantona, the footballer, doesn't get a mention, but Cantor, the 19th century Russian-born German mathematician, does. But who can scoff at a dictionary that not only gives Maradonna a reference, but also recalls the infamous "hand of god" incident against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals. Authoritative and accessible, the OERD is a must for teachers and students alike.

The Hutchinson Concise Encyclopedic Dictionary, while being cheaper, is not really in a position to compete with the OERD. With only 75,000 dictionary definitions and a little over half the number of pages, it is ultimately less impressive. It is not just the sheer volume of the OERD that make it superior to the Hutchinson, but it is also the quality of the entries. A reference or encylopedic dictionary has to maintain a difficult balance between clear definitions and descriptive detail. Hutchinson's entry on the Enlightenment, for instance, gives us an adequate three sentence definition, but, unlike the OERD gives no mention of the names of philosophers and scientists who were associated with this intellectual movement. For a student who wants more than definitions, which is what reference dictionaries are for, this is a crucial shortfall. Intellectual movements are made up of people; this would be difficult to fathom from the Hutchinson. The Hutchinson would like to think it had its finger on the new-word pulse. They might have "dis", but they don't have "DAT". Get my meaning?

Richard Woolfenden teaches English at Tom Hood School, Walthamstow.

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