Lori's Book Nook

Have I mentioned dictionaries?

Posted on: September 17, 2006

I like dictionaries. I have a number of them:

  • Canadian Oxford (a must-have for any Canadian. Includes entries on ‘eh’ and ‘touque’…and one of the best sentences in the history of dictionaries: it’s way out in the suburbs, eh, so I can’t get there by bike)
  • Gage Canadian (two copies, actually. Different editions,combined in the marriage)
  • Websters
  • Collins Cobuild (designed for ESL students, it defines words in full, clear sentences!)
  • Longman Dictionary of Language & Culture (another ESL dictionary) I used this one to help me write my book in Korea
  • a rather cool dictionary called Shakespeare’s Words by David Crystal and Ben Crystal. (Check out the link, as this is the online version, which you can play with for a 7-day free trial!)
  • any number of language dictionaries: Greek, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Welsh, Italian…
  • and, the pièce de résistance, the Oxford English Dictionary, lovingly known as the OED to those in lexicography, and dictionary-philes around the world. My copy is the Compact…20 volumes in 2 books, complete with magnifying glass (here’s a pic of how small the print is!)

Years ago, K.M. Elisabeth Murray wrote the story of her Grandfather, James Murray, editor of the original Oxford University dictionary project, in the book Caught in the Web of Words. It’s a detailed, respectful look at a man, and a process, that took years, and resulted in the most amazing historical document of the 20th Century. (I read it on a memorable trip across Canada by train.)

If you’ve never seen an OED entry, check out the word of the day from the OED website. You’ll see examples of the word used throughout its history, in different contexts, with quotes from historical writings.

Imagine the process. Pick a word. Read as much as possible, as far back as possible, to find the earliest example of the word in written use, and examples of new meanings of the word, tracing its history through the centuries of written English. Gather example sentences that illustrate the word’s meaning clearly, in context. They needed a lot of readers to help. And people did, from all over the world, in English speaking countries. Including one interesting man who submitted more than 10,000 words-in-context — who was also an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane in the USA. Simon Winchester, author of a number of rather torrid cultural histories, wrote The Professor and the Madman, putting a lot of spin on this man, Dr. W.C. Minor.

Dictionaries. Talk to me of dictionaries.

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1 Response to "Have I mentioned dictionaries?"

[…] A while back I wrote about dictionaries, as all bookish bloggers are wont to do (aren’t they?). I really enjoy having dictionaries, […]

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