Posts Tagged ‘dictionaries’

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 Littr√© 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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The death of reference books

September 23, 2014

It’s autumn, and so in our house, the annual clearout begins. This includes pruning the library, and I’m getting rid of a lot of old reference books. This had me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I look things up.

I still use dictionaries, (well, I would, being an ex-English teacher and crossword fan: it’s far easier with a book in your lap) so the faithful Chambers is on the shelves – our third copy, I think – though I often find myself using the OED online, as I have free access via our local library log-in. But paper encyclopaedias and gazetteers are now useless, I find, because the information available on the web is much more up-to-date, and easily accessible. Paper atlases and maps, however, I still find immensely useful when reading all the travel writing I consume: the detail, the clarity and the ability to relate one area to another is far easier than on something like Google Maps; the only time when online maps come into their own, I find, is when very small detail is needed.

General encyclopaedias pale into insignificance next to wikipedia. And who consults the Encyclopedia Britannica any more? Apparently, it’s hard to give away old printed sets, and it’s no longer the default source for detailed knowledge on the web either. Thanks to an excellent librarian at the school where I used to work, we were all trained in how to set up useful searches, and how to evaluate web sources for reliability and truthfulness, so why wouldn’t I start my quest for further knowledge on the web?

When it comes to more specific or specialised information, then I still think paper reference books have a place. I have a couple of sets of encyclopaedias of world literature which are still getting ever more well-worn, and I have not switched to using exclusively online information when travelling and touring; I would still much rather have a detailed guidebook and supplement this with latest online information as and when I need it. I need a paper map to find my way around unfamiliar towns and cities.

It is astonishing, though, how in a decade or so, our access to and use of information, has been revolutionised. I resent the waste of paper when a new – admittedly thinner – phone directory or yellow pages drops through the letterbox, as I can’t remember when I last used either. Instant, quality information on anything is at my fingertips, and, what I probably find most amazing of all, information I never knew I could have is there, courtesy of being able to surf and browse. People sometimes complain that the web is being taken over by huge corporations who only want to mine data, spy on us and sell us crap: this is undoubtedly true, and yet there is also such a tremendous resource of useful material, offered free, out there, and I’m immensely grateful to organisations like Project Gutenberg and Librivox, for example, who have revolutionised some aspects of my life…

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