Latest Lowdown on Looking It Up the Shelf of Dictionaries Grows as Publishers Race to Keep Pace with a Changing Language. WORD REFERENCE BOOKS

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WORD reference books worth their salt are long-term investments. They hardly reveal all their merits or failings at a glance. They are tools. You have to work with them awhile to discover their usefulness. Size is an important measure: how many thousand definitions they contain.

Probably a 20-volume dictionary today would be best on computer disk, but there are some massive single-volume affairs available.

One impressive new dictionary definitely warrants its 2-1/2-inch slot on the bookshelf. Containing more than 350,000 entries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Third Edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 2,140 pp., $39.95) is clear but not too laconic. It boasts, apart from helpful usage notes and quotes, two features that are particular assets: a large number of pictures and separately boxed paragraphs on synonyms and word histories that are often - given the responsible atmosphere of this book - entertaining. The synonym entries discuss shades of difference between words of similar meaning, though for mere comprehensiveness in this area you'd still need a thesaurus or synonym dictionary.

Two other aspects of dictionary compilation are important. One is the attention given to "new words," in particular to their contextual origins and sensitive usage. Under this banner, slang and "vulgar" words find their place in modern dictionaries, no less than computerese. "The American Heritage Dictionary" also reports on usage problems, like "snuck" instead of the more proper, but less popular, "sneaked."

Another role of dictionaries is entertainment (or to widen the application of a "new" word usually reserved for TV shows, "infotainment.") Some compilers of reference works are clearly recognizing that they are, apart from being useful, also in the business of giving pleasure. Even the dignified "American Heritage" is not above announcing proudly that it is being used as a research source for questions on the TV program "Jeopardy!"

The surprising amount of space now allocated in bookstores under "Reference" surely indicates an increase in the popularity of these books. Dictionaries, thesauri, books of quotations, pronunciation, and spelling, not to mention encyclopedias, don't merely satisfy a thirst for correct knowledge, they can also offer various kinds of delight.

Not that there was a dearth of amusement in some such books in the past. Fowler's "Modern English Usage" and Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" (both still in print and periodically revised), as well as such freakier, somewhat temporary manifestations of the genre as "The Dictionary of Misinformation" by Tom Burnham (out of print), or Eric Partridge's dictionaries of slang and catch phrases, have perennially entertaining aspects for anyone intrigued by words and usages.

Among new contenders, the Tuttle Dictionary of New Words Since 1960 (Charles E. Tuttle, $16.95) certainly is entertaining. Its compiler, Jonathon Green, introduces himself as someone who makes dictionaries more for enjoyment than as a duty. Originally a British publication, it has a certain UK bias that American readers may find irrelevant or delightful or both. Here, for example, can be found definitions of "panda-crossing" (coined in 1962) and "car-boot sale" (1980), not necessarily survival terms in an average American's daily life. On the other hand, American neologisms, which generally cross the Atlantic more persuasively than vice versa, such as "hip-hop" (1985), "preppie" (1970), or "ball park (figure)" (1962), also abound. …