What's the word?;Books

4th September 1998 at 01:00
David Self cuts through the hype and finds much to admire in the new wave of dictionaries

THE NEW OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH. Oxford University Press pound;29.99.

THE CHAMBERS DICTIONARY. Chambers pound;25 until December 31, then pound;30.

COLLINS ENGLISH DICTIONARY MILLENNIUM EDITION. HarperCollins pound;29.99.

When new dictionaries and new editions of old favourites appear, it is the neologisms that make the headlines. Oxford's acceptance of "phwoah" (why not "phwoar"?) or the pronunciation of "harass" with the stress of "rass" will agitate the reactionaries - as will its acceptance of "they" as a singular pronoun meaning "she".

Publishers adore the controversy. After all, in such a crowded market, any publicity is welcome. Whether Oxford is quite so pleased to have its definition of Yorkshire ("a former county of northern England") so widely trumpeted around the Three Ridings is another matter.

More than 200 years ago, Doctor Johnson's famous task of "harmless drudgery" was a solitary one. His idiosyncratic dictionary was his work alone. In the following century, James Murray (compiler of the original Oxford Dictionary) had the help of many correspondents.

Today, Chambers can rely upon Chambers Wordtrack ("the most authoritative and wide-ranging new-word monitoring programme"); Collins draws upon the Bank of English (a database of 323 million words); and Oxford has its World Reading Programme and another computerised collection, the British National Corpus.

The electronification of lexicography doesn't result in uniformity. These three new dictionaries all have their strengths, weaknesses and quirks. The new Chambers is in some ways the most traditional. That said, it embraces the jargon of computing and alternative medicine; is both international and multi-cultural; and defines such "modern" phenomena as Blairism, cellulite and sleaze.

It is, however, a conventional dictionary. The Millennium (a word, we are told, misspelt one in 10 times it appears in print) Edition of Collins English Dictionary is also gazetteer and encyclopedia. Besides definitions, 18,500 other entries range from England's former cricket captain, Atherton, to UCAS. It, too, treats English as a world language and follows modern practice in accepting such parts of speech as determiners, intensifiers and modifiers.

The most radical of the three is, however, the New Oxford Dictionary of English. Also international, it defines 230 West Indian, 600 South African and 1,300 Australasian words. It too has many encyclopedic entries (though 7,000 fewer than Collins) and is racier than the other two. (Derivations from, and compounds of, "shit" fill a whole column.) Even more distinctively, the New Oxford uses tinted panels. Some provide more extended encyclopedic entries while others suggest usage - in some cases, controversially. For example, it maintains the plural noun "data" may now be used with a singular verb; the one-word "alright" is described as "logical"; and split infinitives are accepted as "normal and useful". While it does include derivations and some word histories, it is principally a dictionary of current English.

It is heavier in weight than the others and has a larger page size. It has been designed with the everyday user in mind rather than the linguistics scholar.

On my shelves, it will replace a number of dictionaries of new words and an ageing Dictionary of Contemporary English. For some, Collins will have a place as a one-volume reference book, but for everyday use I shall favour Chambers. Less ambitious than the others, it is nevertheless compact, clear and easy to use. A proper dictionary.

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