My A-Z of reading: D is for Dictionary

October 23, 2016

51ah2og2rhl-_ac_us160_When I was ten, I found a pound note in the street. Brought up to be honest, and because it was such a lot of money in those days, I took it to the police station where they kept it for three months, and, after no-one had claimed it, returned it to me! My dad contributed the remaining necessary five shillings and I bought the latest edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (a requirement for the grammar school I was about to attend): thus began my relationship with dictionaries.

The Concise Oxford sufficed until I got to university, where it soon revealed its limitations – it didn’t have enough words in it – and, with an early holiday wage-packet, I treated myself to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two large volumes. Even though the edition was forty years old, it didn’t matter: the words I was looking up as a student of English literature were a lot older than that, and I held on to those two very useful volumes until a couple of years ago. At some intervening point when flush with money I splashed out on the reduced size, twenty-volumes-in-one edition of the OED. In retrospect, this was an expensive error as it’s had relatively little use, and we were just on the verge of the internet, and the changes to reference works that was about to bring.

Through our local library I have free access to the OED online, on those relatively rare occasions where I come across a word I haven’t met, or need to explore the etymology of a word I do know. It’s one of the great boons of the internet, along with wikipedia.

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Crossword addicts will know, however, that in our field, the Oxford dictionaries don’t really cut the mustard; they don’t contain many of the archaisms and Scots words that fiendish compilers like to use. So Chambers Twentieth Century English Dictionary was added to the bookshelves – it had to become the Chambers English Dictionary after 2001, of course – and for my money it remains the best single-volume dictionary of our language, and has been a boon on many occasions when I’ve wrestled with the Guardian Prize Crossword of a weekend or a bank holiday. You see, for crossword completion you need the paper pages to be able to turn them over as you scan for the range of possibilities that might fit the gaps in the grid, and match the definition part of the clue: you just can’t do this effectively onscreen or online.

I also have my own personal mini-dictionary: for many years I have collected the words that are new to me as I’ve come across them in my reading; I’ve added them to my notebooks and eventually jotted down a definition alongside.

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My other trusty companion is a recent edition of Le Petit Robert, which is a bit unwieldy but a worthy French equivalent to Chambers and very useful if I’m reading something challenging in French… although reaching for the iPad and hitting the Word Reference app is often a tad easier.

I have three distinctive uses for a dictionary: helping with crosswords, looking up the meaning of a word that is new to me, and exploring the etymology of a word when curiosity gets the better of me. And, as you will infer from the above, online is gradually winning, but won’t help with the crosswords.

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