The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
28 January 2009
My life with dictionaries
A copyeditor’s best friend is her dictionary, and that’s the main reason I own approximately 43 of them.*
I have to admit, I also like dictionaries.
My first dictionary—the Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary—I won in sixth grade in the Clark and Greene Counties Elementary Spelling Bee. It still sits on a shelf in my office.
My newest dictionary, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, sits next to my computer. It’s the standard dictionary for many magazines, newsletters, and newspapers, so I need to refer to it frequently when copyediting or writing for magazines.
My favorite dictionary is the behemoth three-volume Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged. You can read why at the “Friday’s Forgotten Books” post I did in October at Patti Abbott’s blog, Pattinase.
The hard-copy dictionary I use most often is the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, because it weighs less than the second edition.
The electronic dictionaries I use most often are the electronic Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (which is installed on my computer) and the online OneLook at http://www.onelook.com/, which claims to search 973 dictionaries. Even so, it’s incomplete; it rarely finds the musical terms I look up.
We keep a dictionary on the table in the breakfast room so that we can look up words in the newspaper that we don't know.
Many of my dictionaries have chewed corners, courtesy of my late cat Susato, who never met a book he didn't like. Samuel Johnson's cat helper Hodge is memorialized in a statue outside of Johnson's former home, sitting on a copy of Johnson's dictionary. I suspect Hodge did not win his favored status by chewing on books.
The first thing I do with a new dictionary is open it to the middle and take a big whiff of that wonderful new-book smell.
I have the one-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but would love to have the full twenty-volume version.
No one asked my advice about dictionaries, but I’ll give it anyway.
•Keeping a good dictionary by your side when you read and looking up every word you’re not quite sure of is the best way to expand your vocabulary and learn the nuances of meaning among synonyms.
•Be aware of whether the dictionary you are using is descriptive or prescriptive. Most modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they tell you how a word is used today. That sounds good, but it means that they include usages considered incorrect by editors, often without any warning. An exception is the American Heritage Dictionary family of dictionaries. These are descriptive but also tell you what its 200-expert usage panel thinks of questionable uses—the best of both worlds.
•If you primarily use a dictionary other than the American Heritage Dictionary, it’s a good idea to also own a grammar book and/or a style manual (I prefer Claire Kehrwald Cook’s, which is sold under various titles including The MLA’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, and Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing). A style manual can help you with frequently misused words such as “comprise” (it does not mean “is composed of”) and “infer” (it does not mean “imply”).
•Having more than one dictionary is useful even if one is not a copyeditor. Each has its advantages. Some include more pictures than others. Some contain more definitions. Some have better etymologies. Some compare synonyms. Some are more up-to-date on new words. Some contain more reference materials.
•If you have a Macintosh, read the fine print when buying a dictionary that includes a CD-ROM. Some are not Mac-compatible.
•Just because a word is not in the dictionary does not mean it's not a word, unless you are playing Scrabble.
*My hard-copy dictionaries include dictionaries in French, German, Spanish, Latin, and Greek (classical and Biblical); six medical dictionaries; two visual dictionaries (in which one can, for example, look up “horse” and find a picture of a horse with its parts labeled); A British English–American English dictionary; five science dictionaries; a rhyming dictionary; two etymology dictionaries; a dictionary of phrasal verbs; a reverse dictionary (look up the meaning and find the word); two dictionaries of medical acronyms and abbreviations; two dictionaries of slang; a dictionary of plant names; a modern condensed edition of Mr. Johnson’s dictionary; and nine standard dictionaries. I used to have a wonderful early music dictionary, but it drowned in the flood after the federal levees broke in New Orleans. I also have an ancient Sumerian dictionary in a PDF file.