BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Dictionaries: Woman is woman, tree tree

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THE New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary - or SOD, on the principle that acronyms more than three letters long are a waste of time - (two vols, pounds 120) appears as a replacement for the original, much-revised 1933 edition, also in two volumes. Like its forebear, it uses the OED as its frame (in this case the 20 volumes of 1989), abridging, adding and updating. There is an entirely new text. This is a monumental achievement, encompassing almost 100,000 headwords and 500,000 definitions. And, as always, there is the etymology, the dating of usage and the tantalising quotations.

Woman magazine and Iris Murdoch link arms to explain 'yummy'. 'The yummy smell of freshly baked bread' and 'Akiba Lebowitz was yummy of course, but just married'. Guess which sigh belongs to whose bosom. The focus is on English from 1700 to the present, but Shakespearean, biblical and earlier literary resonances remain. Lesley Brown, the editor, deserves canonisation. As always the SOD is exquisite to look upon and handle, but it needs a home of its own; you couldn't carry it around.

Of equal physical splendour and long pedigree, and fully portable, is the new revised Chambers Dictionary (Chambers Harrap pounds 22.50), incorporating 300,000 definitions, pronunciation, etymology and informative appendices, all as before in one volume. It is brilliantly precise, a swift and sure helpmeet, but it doesn't date the development of words or offer examples of usage. This, of course, saves a great deal of time but takes away the insane joy of the three- dimensional dramas offered by the SOD.

Lumbering along beside these thoroughbreds comes a snorting beast with hairy heels, The Reader's Digest Oxford Wordfinder (OUP pounds 24.95), claiming to be 'a new concept in reference books - a dictionary and thesaurus in one'. It's worth quoshing the snobbish antipathy brought on by the name Reader's Digest, and there's the negative bonus of no free gift of a hand- turned wooden peppermill that doesn't work. This is a decent, middle-browish production. It's no good as a thesaurus, being both banal and imprecise, but it's not at all bad as a dictionary, offering etymology and standard OED definitions, with a bias to modern words. It throws in lots of heterogeneous information at the end, in the endearing manner of old-fashioned diaries - countries of the world, proverbs, leaders and rulers, weights and measures, the Beaufort scale of wind force. I think a teenager would get a lot of fun from this one.

In a malign desire to set these majestic warriors against each other, I tried them out on various words. First, two ancients dear to my heart. Of 'antre' the SOD said 'cave, cavern (poetic), early 17th Century from Latin antrum'. Chambers equalled this and then shot ahead by offering the even lovelier 'antar' (Shakespeare) and the Greek origin. Reader's Digest was a non-starter - never heard of it. None of them pleased me on 'swinge'. All defined it, with a scornful 'obsolete', but latched cheerfully on to the adjectival use of its present participle as in 'swingeing economies'. Surely I am not the only living person to use this splendid verb in its intransitive sense? And surely people still come upon 'That great beast Leviathan, / Swingeing the scaly horror of his folded tail'? Pah to economies] A word is not obsolete if it is used. Let's swinge.

Next I sought 'funnybone', adequately defined by the SOD and the RD; it was left to Chambers to give the painful medical pun on humerus which explains it. Again, all were adequate on that chilling perversion 'friendly fire', but Chambers' 'Accidental firing on one's allies rather than one's enemy' was flat-out winner, covering the ground in nine words as opposed to the SOD's 14 and the RD's 21.

Thinking I was being mean and modern, I tried to catch them out on the youthspeak meaning of 'wicked'. Some hope: they all had it, but the SOD flashed ahead here by informing me that this is an early 20th-century usage, and charmingly noted Scott Fitzgerald's 'Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf'. Down the inevitable byway looms the Wicked Bible; this 1631 edition presented the seventh commandment as 'Thou shalt commit adultery'. I was anxious to find a really new word, something other than the hideous offerings of computerland and the infantilities of yuppiedom. 'Punk' has been around since the 16th century, 'naff' and 'wimp' are mid- and early-20th century. In desperation I turned to 'karaoke'. Yes] Late 20th century, from the Japanese kara, empty, and oke, abbreviation for okesutora, orchestra. This elegiac derivation gives no inkling of the horrors of the practice defined. Here, again, Chambers is the best at filling in the nasty picture.

As a final frivolity, I tried another youthword, 'boracic', invariably pronounced 'brassic'. The SOD and the RD were po-faced. 'Of, containing, or derived from Borax' was the consensus. But there are no flies on Chambers: 'Of or relating to Borax or Boron; penniless, skint (colloq rhyming slang for Boracic lint).' That means, as little children say, that Chambers is the out-and-out overall winner. For gorgeous indulgence and detail the SOD has the edge, but Chambers is what one needs.

The Concise English-Scots Dictionary (Chambers Harrap pounds 12.99) must be intended as a Sassenach tease. If a Scots dictionary were needed, it should be Scots into English. No visitor to my native land should try to curry favour with the natives by addressing them in the vocabulary of this book. There is no effective guide to pronunciation or conjugation, and there are multiple choices for the unwary: 'Grumble: girn, natter, yammer, chunner, molligrant, mane, scronach, NE.' There are also a lot of ridiculous words. Heaven help the reckless itinerant who proposes a bout of 'houghmagandie' wi' a darksome lassie.

The Penguin Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations, ed J M and M J Cohen (Viking pounds 17.99), contains some sparklers, but also a mountain of dross. Quotations are compiled under authorial headings, so you'd have to hunt hard to find the bon mot you wanted on any given subject. However, it does contain Alice Thomas Ellis's cosy reflections on family life: 'Men love women; women love children, children love hamsters, hamsters don't love anybody.'

The Collins Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, ed Antony Kamm (HarperCollins pounds 25), is a highly personal selection: classical, Irish and Scottish writers are especially well represented, but there are inexplicable absences. Some will not care for the way literary females are tucked under the umbrella of their literary partners, 'For Teran Lisa St Aubin de see Macbeth'. Despite the liveliness of much of its contents this really won't hold water as a reference book; it is far too eclectic.

To hark back to the matter of definition. Louis MacNeice had little time for it. 'In the beginning and in the end the only decent / Definition is tautology; Man is man / Woman woman, and tree tree.' None the less I'd rather have a dictionary than a tautology on Christmas Day.