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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

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, 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.


Michele said...

Wow. Excellent post, Shauna. I'm definitely going to have to pay more attention to my dictionaries from now on and make certain I'm using them properly. Although, I have nowhere near 43 of them! You're list is amazing...even Sumerian? So cool.

Michele said...

Obviously, that should be "Your list..." Sorry.

Scott said...


I have a couple of dictionaries around, and also go online at times. I'm jealous of your dictionary collection!

Carleen Brice said...

Style guides also come in handy. Just finished going over copy edits for my next novel. I love copy editors-THANK GOD for them!-but even the best sometimes miss something, so it's best for the author to know as much as possible too.

Re dictionaries, my splurge was getting the 2-volume set of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Wish I could afford the whole OED.

Charles Gramlich said...

As one dictionary lover to another, I'm impressed. I have far less than 43. I believe I have about 12, including a Random House unabridged. I've always wanted the Oxford English, though, and am glad our university library has one.

Rae Ann Parker said...

What an informative post. When I think of dictionaries, I remember my childhood piano teacher. She had an enormous dictionary on a stand next to the piano. Whenever I read a word I didn't know, she would direct me to the dictionary. I still think of her when I have to stop reading to look up a word.

I do not own that many dictionaries, but enjoy sometimes picking up my daughter's copy of the Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary because it has great illustrations and a fun reference section in the back.

Shauna Roberts said...

MICHELE, I've always been fascinated by words since I was a child. Several of my dictionaries I inherited from my aunt, a romance writer.

SCOTT, the online dictionaries are great if you want to quickly find out how a word is spelled. I find the definitions rather skimpy, though.

CARLEEN, because I've copyedited for several different types of organizations, I also have a large collection of style guides—I just counted 18 (although several are, for example, 3rd edition, 4th edition, and 5th edition of the same guide). Even so, it's surprising how often I can't find the answer for my grammar or style question.

CHARLES, the OED might be dangerous to have around the house. When I check it at the library, I often get sucked in to reading it.

RAE ANN, that was a great service your piano teacher did you. I've gotten out of the habit of doing pleasure reading with a dictionary at hand, but I need to start again. In fact, I'm going to go put a dictionary next to my reading chair right now.

steve on the slow train said...

In Rex Stout's novel Gambit, his corpulent detective Nero Wolfe burns Webster's Third New International Dictionary for such sins as listing "contact" as a verb. I'm afraid Wolfe lost that one. Im sure he's apoplectic at the use of "transition" as a verb.

I still like our 1970 Random House Unabridged, which sold for virtually nothing back then.

Your dictionary collection is indeed impressive.

DeAnna Cameron said...

I love this post, Shauna! I keep a Webster's New World 4th Edition at my desk, too, right beside my little Shakespeare and Jane Austen action figures :-)

Lana Gramlich said...

I had to give up my unabridged dictionary when I moved down here. Just too cumbersome for the move.

Lisa said...

I recently subscribed to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary because of Marcel Proust. When I started to read him, I decided to keep a notebook and a highlighter with me so I could keep track of words I didn't know as I read and then regularly stop and look them up. Having the right references available when looking up sometimes archaic words and words translated from French has made reading Proust an amazing experience. The Webster's New Explorer Dictionary and Thesaurus I had on hand (and a few other older dictionaries) proved inadequate almost immediately. I love the online Merriam-Webster. Great post!

Shauna Roberts said...

STEVE, LOL about burning Webster's 3rd for listing "contact" as a verb. You're the second person to mention having the Random House Unabridged; that's one I actually don't have for some reason.

DEANNA, I would have guessed that, given your journalism background! I've seen those writer action figures, but don't have any. I do have a statue of the office god Faxus that my father gave me.

LANA, you lucky dog, you have access to all sorts of great dictionaries working at the library, I would think.

LISA, does writing the unknown words down as you come across them help you remember their meanings better?

Lisa said...

Well don't laugh, but what I do with the Proust is highlight the unknown word in the book, then write it down and then when I break, I look the words up and write down the definitions and then flip back to see them in context again. There are a number of words I've highlighted and looked up multiple times and despite my recent tendency toward brain fogginess, it does help.

Virginia Lady said...

We have a dictionary in almost every room in the house, plus I tend to check more than one online dictionary. I think it's part of a love of words that makes us so attached to them.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

What do you call someone who collects dictionaries?

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA, I'm not laughing. That sounds like a good method for understanding the text thoroughly.

VIRGINIA LADY, good point. Owning dictionaries feels almost like possessing the words inside.

ARCHAVIST, you've got me stumped. A bibliomaniac is an avid book collector, but although that describes me, it's not quite right for all dictionary collectors. By analogy, perhaps "logomaniac" fits the bill. Although perhaps the better comparison is with cat hoarders, ladies who fill their houses with more cats than they need. So perhaps I am a "dictionary hoarder." Gary, do you have a better term to suggest?

Travis Erwin said...

There is a prize for you over at my blog. Come on over and claim it. By the way I have your address, so no need to email me unless you want it mailed somewhere other than the return addy on the packages you sent..

Steve Malley said...

Thank you for helping me to feel less alone with my own, ah, lexiphilia....

Shauna Roberts said...

TRAVIS, thanks for the prize!

STEVE, "lexiphilia"—good choice. It sounds less dangerous a mental disorder than "logomania."