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
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. …