Charles Harrington Elster

Looking for a New Dictionary?

Here's what Charlie advises:



Recommended Desk or "College" Dictionaries

My first choice: The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition (not the more recent fifth) is an oversized desk dictionary masquerading as an unabridged dictionary. It is not quite as well written as Random House and New World, but it has an attractive layout, lots of pictures, and two excellent features: over 500 fascinating "Word History" paragraphs, and helpful usage notes that report the opinions of a distinguished panel of writers, editors, professors, and other authorities.

N.B. In late 2011 the publisher released a fifth edition of American Heritage, which I have yet to peruse. If you are considering buying it instead of the fourth edition recommended here, I would advise you to first take a good look at its front matter and also dig up some reviews, starting with the ones at amazon.com, which are not encouraging.

My second choice: The Random House Webster's College Dictionary is a good all-around desk dictionary, strong in new words, technical language, and slang. It has clearly written definitions—with the most common meaning listed first—and thorough etymologies that also tell you when the word came into the language.

I admire RHWC and use it often as my reading dictionary; in fact, it would probably be my first choice if not for one problem about which I must issue a caveat emptor. In 2002 Random House abruptly terminated work on a third edition of its unabridged dictionary and laid off its entire staff of lexicographers, signaling an end to a distinguished tradition of dictionary-making at that house dating back to the publication of the landmark American College Dictionary in 1947. Though Random House continues to issue printings of RHWC, anything published after 2003 has not been professionally updated and is, in my view, suspect.

My third choice: Webster's New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, is also a fine desk dictionary, clearly written and strong in Americanisms, but its coverage of vocabulary is not as thorough as American Heritage and Random House and it lacks some of their nice features. The Associated Press and many newspapers and magazines rely on this dictionary.

Recommended but with reservations: The New Oxford American Dictionary, published in 2001, is now out in a second edition. I own and use the first edition, which I find workmanlike in some respects but wanting in others. The definitions are mostly well written and the usage notes are admirably prescriptive, but the pronunciations sometimes favor the trendy and the editors have been rather cavalier in applying the archaic label; for example, NOA inexplicably designates the "idle, indolent" sense of otiose archaic, though American Heritage and RHWC give that sense first. And though NOA is about the same size as American Heritage, its vocabulary has some surprising holes for a work of 2,000-plus pages: agon, billingsgate, faceup, fustigate, Hudibrastic, irrefrangible, kerygma, and longanimity are only a few of the words I've found conspicuously absent.

Not Recommended

I do not recommend the nation’s bestselling dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, tenth (1993) or eleventh (2003) editions, for several reasons. The print is uncomfortably dense, the writing is stiff, and the Collegiate is the most permissive of the major American dictionaries. It sanctions many questionable, eccentric, and stigmatized pronunciations, and its usage notes often take great pains to justify locutions that many authorities find objectionable and that are best avoided. I will admit that it has one strong point, though: there are plenty of excellent and helpful synonym discriminations.

Also avoid the Encarta Dictionary of World English (1999), another oversized desk dictionary posing as unabridged. Financed by Microsoft, this "first dictionary born in the Information Age" was produced hastily and carelessly. It is marred by clunky writing and riddled with errors. Don’t waste good money on this shoddy work. Its abridgment, the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary, is a better work. It has fewer errors and some useful features, but the print is very small.

Unabridged Dictionaries

If you are a serious dictionary user, invest in the incomparable Oxford English Dictionary, second edition (1989), which scrupulously records the history of over 600,000 words. Sharp-eyed consumers should consider buying the compact edition, which has nine pages reduced on each page and comes with a hefty magnifying glass. If buying the print edition is beyond your budget, you may be able to consult the OED free online through your public or college library; check with your librarian for details.

For general purposes, I recommend the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, second edition (first published in 1987). Its vocabulary coverage, definitions, pronunciations, and etymologies are first-rate, and it has some excellent features and supplements. Though it is now 25 years old, I still find it fresh, thorough, and eminently useful.

For the dictionary connoisseur, I recommend my two all-time favorites: the glorious and beautifully printed Century Dictionary, published from 1889 to 1914 and now accessible online (at http:/​/​global-language.com/​CENTURY/​); and the incomparable Webster’s New International, second edition, published from 1934 through the 1950s. This monument of American lexicography contains 550,000 words and has delightful pictures and wonderful supplements. Anyone who loves dictionaries will find enough browsing pleasure here to last a lifetime. I recommend buying one of the earlier editions, which were published in one fat volume that makes an impressive addition to a living room, library, or office. Expect to pay $150-$300 for a copy in good condition.

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Copyright © 2003, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All rights reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Selected Works

Books
Articles
Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
Charlie beats up on Merriam-Webster in the Boston Globe.
At a loss for words? Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Shopping for a new dictionary? Here's some sage advice.
Charlie's brave new words for a wireless world.
Read one of Charlie's articles in SPELL/Binder.
Read a profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.
Letters
Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.