Title: The Oxford Modern English Dictionary
Page Count/Review Word Count: 1,292
There’s a bit of a story behind this review, but let’s face it – I’ve got time to go into it. In fact, I still have another 1,200 words to fill, and so the longer I can make this story, the better.
See, I’m a writer as well as a reader, and I once worked on a project called The Lexicologist’s Handbook, a dictionary of strange and obscure words. I did a lot of research and I read a lot of different books on similar subjects, but this was perhaps the weirdest piece of research that I carried out – I read the entire dictionary from cover to cover in preparation, making notes as I went along.
I can’t pretend that it was a particularly pleasurable experience, but that wasn’t because of the quality of the dictionary itself – it’s about as interesting as a list of words can be, and the OED is the best dictionary to use in my opinion. My copy is a little out of date, but I’ve never found that to be a problem, and there are 90,000 entries with 130,000 definitions, so you’re bound to find the word that you’re looking for.
It does make me laugh to note that it describes itself as “the dictionary for everyday use”, though. Even as a writer, I don’t use a dictionary every day – one per month perhaps, if that. In fact, Google pretty much single-handedly removed the need to have a dictionary by integrating definitions into their search results, and so most people won’t be making space on their bookshelves any time soon.
That said, if you’re a writer like I am, then there is certainly some value in reading this thing from cover to cover – you’ll learn dozens (if not hundreds) of new words, and that can only be a good thing. And there are different ways to read it – instead of going through it from start to finish, you could dip into it at random and pick out a word of the day. Then you can challenge yourself to use that word in conversation – it can be pretty difficult, depending upon which word you get!
One of the major disadvantages of the written dictionary is in its pronunciation guide – sure, it’s usually enough to help you to say something out loud, but it’s so much easier if you simply search for the word online and find a clip of someone saying it. Where this does have an edge, however, is in its examples and explanations, which are usually much more detailed than you would find online, unless you clicked through to a couple of different websites or perhaps checked out the Wikipedia page.
There are plenty of notes on usage, too – for example, whether you should write ‘roofs‘ or ‘rooves‘, or whether ‘travelling‘ has one L or two. Again, this is all stuff that you could find easily enough online, but it’s useful to have a printed copy as well in case of power cuts or network outages. It’s also going to come in useful if you’re the last man on earth during a zombie apocalypse and the only way you can keep yourself sane is with a crossword book.
It also makes quite an efficient paperweight, which is a blessing if you need something to weigh down your notes when you’re working on a novel – you can’t look up words in most other paperweights. Other than that, I’m not sure what else you could do with it – ransom notes, maybe?
As I mentioned, my version isn’t the most up-to-date version – it won’t have words like ‘selfie‘ in it, but is that such a problem? It does proudly proclaim a few new editions at the time of going to print, though – bum-bag, bungee jumping, crop circle, gobsmacked, karaoke, liposuction, womanist and zouk, to name a few. In fact, I checked the inside cover and found out that my copy was printed in 1992, when I was three years old.
I still have five hundred words left to cover off, and so I thought I’d talk about the history of the OED. Because why not, right? Work began on the project in 1857, but it wasn’t published until 1884, and not until 1928 was it published as a complete set. Wikipedia adds that “more supplements came over the years until 1989, when the second edition was published. Since 2000, a third edition of the dictionary has been underway, approximately a third of which is now complete.”
My copy, then, appears to be this second edition, although it doesn’t seem to actually confirm that anywhere. In fact, the title says it’s the “Modern English Dictionary”, which could be a different thing altogether! Who knows? It’s just words – words upon words upon words, with definitions all over the place. Hell, it’s like the bible for the bibliophile, which is why I own it.
One thing that’s interesting to note is that the size and comprehensiveness of this dictionary have itself become sources of criticism, and in some ways I can see why. There are pages upon pages dedicated to definitions for single, commonplace words, containing a level of detail that I don’t think anyone would ever need. But then, surely that’s the point of it – all of the information you’re ever likely to need to know about the words of the English language are contained within these pages, so that when you do inevitably need to look something up, it’s ready and waiting.
And let’s face it, it’s a shame that more people don’t own and use dictionaries – the English language is under a lot of strain at the moment thanks to text speak and the creeping invasion of acronyms like YOLO. Sometimes, it takes something like this to make you realise that our language really is pretty versatile after all, and perhaps there’s space for YOLO and somnambulist at the same time.
Because it’s a pity that we don’t use some of the words that we used to, from thee and thou to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s epic usage of the word ‘ejaculate‘. I’m not saying that the English language is dying, but there’s certainly room for some more lexicologists in the world. So perhaps, if you’re as crazy as I am, you could consider doing what I did, and picking up a copy and reading it from cover to cover.
If you do decide to do that, keep a highlighter and a notebook beside you while you go through it, and take extensive notes. Better yet, follow that challenge I suggested where you aim to use a word a day in conversation – it’ll help you to remember it, and that’ll make it more likely that you’ll use it in the future. And that’s the point of doing that, right? Because why else would you read the dictionary from cover to cover?
And so that’s pretty much it, despite the fact that I have another hundred words or so to plough through. But really, there’s not much more that you can say about this other than that it’s the dictionary, and that it’s probably the most definitive of its kind. It’s useful to have knocking around, but probably no longer essential, even if you do make a living out of writing. But you should probably have a copy of it anyway, just in case – you never know when you might need to look something up, and it’s better to have the option available to you than to not be able to do it on the rare occasion that you need to. And that, my friends, is how you write a 1,292 word review of the OED.