Posts Tagged ‘Chambers English Dictionary’

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.


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.


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.

Throwing out the encyclopaedias or, accessing information today

June 22, 2016

I used to collect reference books, so that I could easily access information, and have it at my fingertips whenever I needed it. Now they gather dust on my shelves and I’m gradually getting rid of them all. Yes, the internet has rendered most of them obsolete, and I found myself thinking about the enormous change that has taken place in the accessing of information in the last twenty years or so.

I grew up needing to use libraries to find things out – the public library, the library at school; they had the reference books, the encyclopaedias, the directories. Gradually, as I could afford them, and became clearer about what would be useful, I began to acquire my own copies of selected works. I’ve worn out a couple of copies of Chambers English Dictionary, one of the Shorter Oxford, and a couple of editions of the Times Atlas… I have reference books on language, literature, Bach, travel and exploration, to name a few. There is something different about using reference books: as well as searching for specific information, one can enjoy browsing, and one can be side-tracked down interesting back alleys whilst searching. The web doesn’t facilitate this.

Pretty nearly every reference book is supplanted by what’s available online, in a much more up-to-date form – apart from a good atlas: Google Earth is no substitute for a good printed map, though it can, of course, do many things that my trusty atlas can’t.

Now, on my desktop, my laptop, my tablet or my phone, I can find out what I’m looking for in seconds, and the information is (usually) current. Wikipedia is a marvel (who uses the Britannica now? how many people have even heard of what used to be the gold standard in print, hawked to unsuspecting parents by doorstep salesmen for years? Twenty-four, and then thirty-two volumes of high quality knowledge, that you can’t give away now. Not only can I go straight to what I want, but the printed information is enhanced by illustrations, diagrams and filmclips. Instead of trawling through pages of information or a huge index to track down a single nugget, if my search terms are carefully-enough worded, it’s there, instantly. And yet, as I noted earlier, it’s not the same as the physical search through a printed book, where we may serendipitously come across something far more interesting.

I would have said that books were probably better for more detailed information, but I think the web now wins here, too: there are some astonishingly detailed articles, some wonderful, lovingly developed and maintained websites (I’m particularly thinking of the superb Bach Cantatas website) that far surpass weighty printed volumes. And then there are the links, which we take for granted, expect to find, that can take us far beyond the scope of that initial website, in an instant. Knowledge isn’t a walled garden any more: it’s no longer only in this book, if you know the book exists and can get your hands on a copy…

I know I’ve expressed reservations about some aspects of electronic media in previous posts; there are things I do feel very wary of. I am beginning to think there are two internets out there, the trashier social media/ entertainment/ shopping one, and the wonderful world of knowledge which far fewer people are interested in, and which never ceases to amaze me. And there are two attitudes to knowledge, too: I come from a generation where we learned and remembered things, squirrelling facts away on our own personal hard drives and able to recall them when we needed to; today’s younger people, it seems to me, are quite happy not so much to know facts as to know where to find out things if and when they need to; that’s quite a change too, and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of that…

Words, words, words…

October 20, 2014

As Hamlet put it. I have always loved words and been curious about them, no matter what language they were in. And so, I cannot imagine ever being without a dictionary. For many years, Chambers has been the one-volume of choice, and I think we are well on the way towards wearing our our third copy in this household. It succeeds most of the time, and is the dictionary of necessity for a crossword fiend like myself. But, it’s not big enough – doesn’t have enough words in it. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was my mainstay during my student years, though suffering from not being updated – the edition I bought in the 1970s dated from forty years previously…

And so to the greatest of them all – the OED itself. It does seem to have everything I want in it, definitions, pronunciations, etymologies and examples of usage through time. I bought a micro-edition, all twenty volumes in one, nine pages to a page and a beefy magnifying glass to read them. The school I taught in invested in the CD-ROM version when it was first published. And now, wonder of wonders, I have free online access to the latest version through my local public library. You can’t browse it as you can a printed book, but if electronic books were invented for any purpose at all, surely it was things such as this.

French is the only other language I feel (almost) fully functional in; at university we were ordered to move on from the limitations of bilingual dictionaries such as Harraps‘ (which I still have and is my first port of call) to the monolingual Petit Robert, which I still find to be the most useful and wide-ranging. When it’s not up to the mark, then there is the Littré online, which I rarely need to call on.

And then there’s my own personal dictionary, a notebook in which I’ve collected most of the words which have baffled me at some time, when I’ve either been not within reach of a dictionary or too lazy to get up and fetch it, so I’ve jotted down words to look up later, and kept them. Two of my favourites: aglet  (which ex-students of mine may recognise) and eleemosynary, which just looks so baffling…

The internet has spawned many websites offering to broaden our knowledge of language(s). One of the oldest, and one of my favourites, is language hat, who posts regularly on a very wide variety of topics, though sometimes with a little too much Russian for my liking, and A.Word.A.Day has posted thematically linked words and definitions for many years, too. This idea was too good to pass up on, so the OED now also delivers a new word to my inbox each day, as does Word Spy, who concentrates on neologisms. And, if you like vulgarity and are not too easily offended, then there’s always the Urban Dictionary.

I always used to urge my students to learn a new word everyday, and try to, myself. I’ll be dust long before I’ve exhausted the OED…

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