Recommending a dictionary


We were asked by a Russian contact to recommend an English dictionary. I think I would plump for the Concise OED.

Naturally enough, both dictionaries of American English and dictionaries for learners of English are beyond my ken.  A very long time ago (probably before I left school) I got myself a Concise OED.  When I had worn that out I got a copy of the Chambers dictionary (in 1989) on the grounds that it had more words.  The corresponding Wikipedia article has a different opinion, but as they say it depends on how you count entries.

Anyway the single-volume candidates that a native (but non-specialist) English speaker would use seem to be the Concise OED and the offerings from Collins and Chambers.

I had a look at what was available in the shops today.  As for new words, the Concise OED had entries for hashtag and flashmob (as flash mob) while the Collins Reference dictionary didn’t (although it was published later).  It also had something useful to say about the stressing of controversy, while the  Collins Reference didn’t do pronunciation at all.  The large Collins was covered in cellophane while there was no sign of the Chambers.

Back home, I was able to compare some bits of the large Collins and the COED on Amazon.  The Collins annoyed me by including encyclopedia-style entries, which I don’t like, while for  the terms aorist and accusative the Collins tended to flap around giving examples while the COED gave concise, pointed definitions.

While I can’t judge how up-to-date the Chambers is on the basis of my 1989 copy, the definitions of aorist and accusative there are a lot better than the ones in Collins if not quite as good as the Oxford ones.

In general terms, I think that the Oxford dictionaries:

i)   have the most systematic infrastructure for capturing new words and usage;

ii)  have the best definitions and etymologies. (In fact I think that in many cases they have the natural definition since they were there first and other dictionaries have to work round it for reasons of copyright or at least embarrassment);

iii)  are taken as the default in libraries and schools.

So in general you would take the suitable size Oxford dictionary as your default and look to something else only if you had particular needs.  The Concise OED also happens to be cheaper than the other candidates.

Turning now to the Internet, if you’ve got a word that refers to something reasonably definite and you’re dealing with widely-used languages (like English and Russian), your best bet is often to turn to Wikipedia where you can see a picture/chemical formula/mathematical definition/Linnean binominal and compare what the corresponding articles say in the two languages.

Nowadays, if I find that I don’t know an English word it tends to be something I can either look up on Wikipedia or find in the Urban Dictionary.  And there are also resources like OneLook that will search the free online versions of numerous dictionaries for you.


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