On a whim, I decided to rewrite LF's most recent post as I would have written it. It's really striking how different people present similar ideas.
At some point in my UU life, somebody told me a joke about a Unitarian who is testifying in court and insists on swearing on the dictionary. I don’t know that we UU’s literally treat our dictionaries as gospel, but recent debates in UUism and indeed on the blogosphere make it quite clear that language is a very important thing to us and much depends on how we define our terms.
The best one can do for definitions of terms is a dictionary. But there are a lot of dictionaries on the market. (Many of them titled “Webster’s,” by the way, a name that isn’t copyrighted and really doesn’t mean anything.) I love dictionaries. I have, at last count, eight. All in English, not counting specialized dictionaries such as a dictionary of the bible.
Dictionaries can do a lot of different things. They define words of course, and the number and quality of definitions a dictionary provides is very important. But we look to dictionaries for other things as well. We use dictionaries to figure out pronunciations and where the word comes from. Some dictionaries provide a word in context, such as a literary quotation, which is something I’ve always found useful. Some dictionaries provide additional information, such as listing the population of a country, but such information quickly becomes out of date.
(Which is not to say that one can’t learn some interesting things about another time from their dictionary. In my 1917 Webster’s New International Dictionary, “masturbation” is defined as “self-pollution!”)
But what makes one dictionary better than another one? And which dictionary should you buy to meet your specific needs?
Probably the most famous dictionary in the world is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED.) The real one is twenty volumes long (even I don’t have one,) but you can also get it on CD Rom. For most purposes, the Shorter OED is going to be your best bet. It is the best researched dictionary in the world and can tell one, on the basis of huge documentation, about how individual words and our language in general has changed, providing information on the chronology of different meanings and how even individual meanings of a word have changed through history. It’s good stuff. (If you complain about how Unitarians now shouldn’t call themselves “Unitarians” because they aren’t using the word by its historical meaning, it’s the one for you.)
Most American dictionaries have taken another path, focusing on language as it is now. (If you use the word “Humanist” to mean “Atheist,” which is generally understood to be implied in “Humanist” in most contexts, but which hasn’t much to do with the Humanism movement of the renaissance where the term comes from, these folks are your camp.)
Some of the best of these American dictionaries are Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, and the Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
The second edition has lots of encyclopedic information and has more pictures, but as I’ve mentioned encyclopedic information quickly goes out of date. The third edition is more interesting to me because it follows how words are actually used instead of talking about how they should be used, a notable departure from previous dictionaries.
Another good American dictionary is the the American College Dictionary. It is a useful desk dictionary and followed an encyclopedia-like model of having biologists define biology terms etc rather than having lexicographers defining things like scientific terms. This produced a desk dictionary that is still useful today despite its age.
The ACD formed the basis for CC’s personal favorite dictionary, the The Random House Unabriged or, as they called it at my old newspaper in South Carolina, “the Big Dog.” It has lots of encyclopedia information and a far more contemporary feel than any of the other dictionaries I’ve listed so far. It doesn’t have the historical focus that the OED does, of course, but it’s the dictionary I turn to when I need to define a term and is the dictionary of reference for settling word arguments on TheChaliceBlog.
But not everyone is a Chalicechick or a Linguist Friend and not everyone wants a 24 pound dictionary. (As the Big Dog is. LF sent me one at work when I worked for the paper and the secretary who had to haul it in from the post office never really forgave me.) For everyday, non-word-obsessed use, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is an excellent choice. It has lots of color illustrations and an unusual amount of encyclopedic information.
One of the ultimate sources for contemporary English is the Encarta Dictionary of World English, which was touted when it came out as “the first new dictionary in thirty years.” It is well-illustrated and has the modern words and slang you won’t find in older dictionaries.
But I still like the Big Dog.