Friday, March 13, 2009

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

This review is a little different than most of those I've written because I haven't actually read the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary all the way through, and yet this is not a negative tirade on how ridiculously awful the first few pages were (see Code of the Mountain Man, X-Rated Bloodsuckers, and When One Man Dies for examples of those). In fact, I couldn't be happier with it. I hope I never finish it — that there will always be something new to discover about our fabulous (though often painfully flawed) English language.

Though I wouldn't turn down a full Oxford English Dictionary if someone gave it to me and I had the free shelf space for all twenty volumes (both of which are equally unlikely), I actually believe the two-volume shorter version is more useful. The editors have pared the contents of the behemoth down to just those words in regular use any time after 1700 a.d.

Added to this are the entire contents of the works of pre-1700 authors William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser, as well as the full text of the King James Version of the Bible. This is basically every word the average person is likely to come across, provided you don't often indulge in pre-18th century reading material (with Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf being notable omissions).

And of course the Oxford editors are perhaps best known for their historical perspective, an aspect that is also contained in the shorter version of their dictionary. Most words have chronological listings and a complete etymology with origins where they're known and literary examples, something often missing in American dictionaries but utterly vital to language enthusiasts (like those of us who take the time to write rave reviews of dictionaries).

If you're in the market for a dictionary and just aren't satisfied with yet another variation on the Webster's/American Heritage clan (and you're willing to spend the extra money), the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is an investment in your future. (Mine was a gift from my wife — that's definitely one way to know you've married the right woman.)

2 comments:

ARCHAVIST said...

It's a good book but the plot sucks!

Craig Clarke said...

Well, it's like James Joyce said: we have all the words, now we just have to put them in the right order.

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