Magazine article Verbatim

Two New Kids on the Block. (Bibliographia)

Magazine article Verbatim

Two New Kids on the Block. (Bibliographia)

Article excerpt

I suspect other readers of VERBATIM also share a sense of excitement whenever a new American English dictionary makes an appearance. We've struck it rich this time, with two dictionaries from distinguished publishing houses: The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (AHCD) (Houghton Mifflin, 0618098488, US$26.00) and The Oxford American College Dictionary (OACD) (Putnam, 0399144153, US$25.95). Both are based on larger works, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (AHD4), and The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD).

Although AHCD does not lack provocative new features, OACD is the less traditional dictionary. For example, perhaps on the theory--axiomatic among lexicographers--that hardly anyone reads front and back matter, Oxford has kept these sections minimal. The front matter contains a preface stating the book's goals, a "how-to-use" guide that consists of sample pages, and a pronunciation key. Period. But given that OACD features innovative grammatical labeling, explanations would have been helpful. Without access to the front matter of the larger NOAD, users may not realize that "in sing." signals a count noun that is not usually pluralized in a particular sense (an ear for music; the promise of peace) or that "submodifier" labels an adverb that modifies an adjective or another adverb (as shown at too but--oddly--not at very). Actually, submodifier is an entry in the book, as is sentence adverb, a label that other dictionaries would do well to consider. So if a baffling label is made up of whole words, you're probably in luck.

OACD's back matter has a punctuation guide, a usage guide with helpful distinctions between formal and informal English, and an instructive, easy-to-read essay on the history of English, palatable enough for curious high-school students yet appropriate for curious adults.

American Heritage front matter is far more extensive. In addition to a preface, lists of staff and consultants (including the members of their well-known usage panel), a full guide to the dictionary, a style manual, a section on abbreviations and labels used in the dictionary, and an explanation of the book's pronunciation system, AHCD includes Geoffrey Nunberg's essay "Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary." Shunning both rigid and out-of-date prescriptivism and undiluted descriptivism, this essay is amazingly lucid and balanced--virtually worth the price of the book.

AHCD'S back matter is a treasure. The six-page essay by Calvin Watkins, "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans," although quite technical, is well worth the challenge and serves as background for the "Appendix of Indo-European Roots." These features of American Heritage dictionaries have long informed and delighted language lovers who are fascinated--even obsessed--by word origins. (Readers will have to consult AHD4 for the new corresponding essay and appendix regarding Semitic roots.)

AHCD has a diacritical pronunciation system of the sort familiar to users of American dictionaries. OACD'S is something of a hybrid, essentially the same sort of respelling system but with some conventions borrowed from the International Phonetic Alphabet--/ae/ for "short a" and no syllable breaks. This can make the pronunciation of a long word daunting for the uninitiated.

Both books offer word history notes, usage notes, and--a boon to generations of frustrated dictionary users--origins for some idiomatic phrases. Oxford's extensive biographical definitions, especially for prominent political figures, are far more useful than the perfunctory offerings in some other books. AHCD too has more than minimal biographical information, although not as ample. A mark of the difference in their approach to the lexicon can be seen at Madonna, where OACD includes the pop icon, and AHCD includes the now obsolete "form of polite address" likely to be encountered by readers of historical fiction. …

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