Donaldus. This is how the mind works, or my mind. A number of years ago I read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. About one of the greatest contributors to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, who turned out to be a murderer who was spending his life in a British insane asylum. That did not make him any less a linguistic genius.
A week or so ago, I heard that Winchester had a second book on the OED, called The Meaning of Everything. I ordered it instantly, and read it this weekend. Yesterday, Saturday, coming off lectures on the history and future of the National Park Service, I indulged myself by sitting in a coffee house reading Winchester’s account of the creation of the massive, definitive, magnificent Oxford English Dictionary.
About halfway through the afternoon, I decided that as someone who loves English literature, loves language, and even loves dictionaries, I ought to see how much it would now cost to buy the full 13-volume edition of the OED. I’ve wanted it all of my life, but I’ve never been able to justify the purchase. I reckoned that it would cost at least $1000 to buy the OED; given the fact that I have free access to the online edition of the OED, wit
h its marvelous search engine, I couldn’t make the case for the big clunky physical OED, not even to myself.
But–mirabile dictu–I found a complete set through Amazon.com for just $350 plus postage. I put it into my basket and read another twenty pages before I could not prevent myself from “placing my order.”
It will be here sometime this week. I’m trying to figure out where I should place the volumes. There is no point in having them without using them virtually every day.
Last night, crowing to myself about my good fortune, I made a list of some of the dictionaries I already own. If Monty Hall offered me $100 for every dictionary in my house that I could put my hands on within 24 hours, I reckon he’d have to pay me at least $2,500. Nobody needs so many dictionaries, of course, but I’m with King Lear: “O reason not the need!”
It used to be that any promising high school senior got a dictionary for graduation. That era is over, unfortunately, because people have come to the wrongheaded conclusion that spellcheck and online “dictionaries” render it no longer useful to own a print dictionary. Nothing could be further from the truth, but such is the state of our culture.
I’ve got to occupy my time somehow until my glorious OED packages start to stack up at my front door. So here’s my quick and dirty guide to dictionaries.
The best dictionary of the English language, arguably the greatest dictionary ever created, is the OED. The online edition is inexpensive and outstanding, but if you want to own it physically I doubt that you can beat my price. There are options, however. There is the old micro edition, two volumes in a box, with a magnifying glass so that you can possibly read the print. I have owned several of these, thanks to abortive memberships in the Book of the Month Club. There is also a one-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that is available new or used. It contains almost any word you are likely ever to want to look up, unless you are a linguist or an English major.
The best one-volume dictionary ever created is either Webster’s Second New International Dictionary or Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, depending on your basic philosophy of language. The Second was the last great “prescriptive” dictionary: in other words, a dictionary that tried to preserve the purity of the language against misuse or ignorance. The Third is the best “descriptive” dictionary, accepting the English language as it is actually used not as purists think it ought to be used. I have both. I do love my venerable Second New International and I do like having the opportunity to find out how the best American experts thought the language should be used. I keep the Third on a special dictionary stand my mother bought me from Levinger’s, the best catalogue for reader nerds in the world. The Second I keep in my home office, but I find that I only consult it on very infrequent occasions.
Note: You should know that not all dictionaries that bear the name Webster have anything to do with the American educator Noah Webster (1758-1843), who completed his monumental American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, just two years after the death of Thomas Jefferson. Only Merriam-Webster dictionaries are based on Webster’s genius. Historians of lexicography say Webster was one of the handful of greatest definers of words in human history. If you think that is easy enough, write out a short definition of sad, love, laugh, truth, black, north or red. My advice: always buy Merriam-Webster.
The dictionaries I have listed so far are superb but expensive. If you are looking for an affordable one-volume dictionary, you have the following options. The American Heritage Dictionary was born in controversy in the 1970s, but it has won respect among writers, readers, and lexicographers. I recommend the latest in the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary series. I own five or six versions of this dictionary, and when I teach college courses I always recommend or require it. One of my prize possessions is my late father’s onion skin Seventh New Collegiate. I rarely consult it, but I keep it next to my reading chair in honor of my father, one of the most discerning readers I have ever known. My father used to correct my spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and diction. He was never wrong. He was so never wrong that it was annoying, but whenever we had a dispute over words, he would say, “Let’s just look it up, shall we?” and I would groan in anticipation of being proved wrong yet again, as always.
Random House has a very good, but quite expensive, one volume dictionary. I own it, and I admire it both as a book and a dictionary, but I seldom consult it. Generally, if it is just spelling, I use autocorrect and spellcheck these days. If I want to look up a word in some simple way, I use the handiest New Collegiate in my house or office. If I am looking for more information, or a rare word, or etymology, I go to my dictionary stand and consult the Third New International.
But starting next weekend, I will pull the requisite volume of the OED off the shelf when I have a serious enquiry.