Journeys in language

Amongst the many things I don’t currently own, or at least, did not own up to a very recent point in time, was an English dictionary. This was a bit of a lack in my life; I own a two volume Finnish dictionary set, two German dictionaries (although one of them I don’t really need as it’s been superceded by the other one) and a recent-ish edition of the large Collins Robert in French. Somewhere at my parents place is a 20 year old anniversary edition Wahrig and a Petit Robert also around 20 years old. I haven’t been able to find them of late so no idea where they are hiding; they may have gotten lost in one of my own personal house moves.

Mostly, when I find myself wanting to look up a word, I turn to one of the online dictionaries. The experience tends to leave me somewhat dissatisfied. The online interfaces for dictionaries (in my limited experience) tend to be less than welcoming, and they do not tend to set off the random exploration a print dictionary does. It had occurred to me that a good English dictionary, preferably more or less matching my large bilingual French and German ones for the purposes of shelf esthetics would be a good purchase. I had Christmas vouchers.

And Easons in Swords had something of interest.

Buying dictionaries is a hassle these days. Mostly, if you find dictionaries, you find what I call school dictionaries. They are about 5 inches by 7 and they lack the gravitas of a big dictionary. Dictionaries are serious reference works. They should be heavy and big and not blending into the rest of the books on your bookshelf. I have not wanted a very concise dictionary – but something a little more austere. What I now own is a copy of Collins Dictionary of the English Language, The Language Lover’s Dictionary. It is a beautiful looking wordbook. It includes more than 200 essays on language and beside me, the book has fallen open on A Brief History of Literature, part 1.

Next to it is a page containing definitions of words starting with the letter B. New to me today is the word bascule. This, apparently, is a drawbridge that operates by a counterbalanced weight.

On page 361, there is a brief essay on the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It falls next to a page of mostly hyphenated words starting with the word “half”. I know all of them.

Falling open on page 593, we encounter a page of Words from Shakespeare, part 14. How can you not love such a book? Page 825 has an extraordinary asset. It is part 8 of the list of three letter words acceptable in a game of Scrabble. This tells you something very useful: it is that there are a lot of three letter words you do not know. But the Scrabble game on your mobile phone certainly does, and it uses them to beat you.

Page 409 has an essay on West Country Dialect. For those of us who do not live in the United Kingdom, this is the area around Somerset, and moving south and southwest through Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Wiltshire. Page 425 covers Yiddish English. This is a mere taste of the range of language related essays to be found in this dictionary and they are all listed at the front of the dictionary for anyone who may care to dip in and out of the pearls to be found in its depths.

In addition, there is a brief overview of the background of each letter in the English alphabet and various uses of them aside from as building blocks for spelling words. This book, in many respects, is more than just a dictionary…it is a journey through the English language taken from many starting points.

The edition I have is the 2010 edition. I am mightily pleased with it.