The Blagger's Guide To...Dictionaries

Lexicon, a word book, from the Latin dictio

*It's good news for bibliophiles and the irretrievably logorrhoeic, with the launches of new editions of three of the world's finest dictionaries – as well as the new Collins Dictionary, the Concise Oxford Dictionary this year celebrates its 100th anniversary edition, and the Chambers Dictionary its 110th.

*The Chambers Dictionary, as we know it, was first published in 1901 with the aim of appealing to everyone, no matter what their background or occupation. Its 12th edition still has no truck with word snobbery, and boasts "more entries and definitions than any other single volume English dictionary". Of these, 200 are new to this edition, including "tweenager: a child who, although not yet a teenager, has already developed an interest in pop music, fashion and exasperating his or her parents", and "channel-surf": to switch rapidly between television channels in a forlorn attempt to find anything of interest."

*"It is not surprising that the new Chambers edition counts over 620,000 words and features just 200 new ones," an insider at dictionary corner tells The IoS, "while the Concise Oxford Dictionary counts 240,000 entries with 400 new words – quality versus quantity?" Miaow ("mi-ow or myow, said in response to a catty or spiteful remark", as the Chambers Dictionary itself might put it).

*The new edition of the Collins Dictionary, meanwhile, is based on the Bank of English, or the Collins Birmingham University International Language Database, which contains more than 550 million English words. Of those, some are bound not to make the final cut, and Collins has raised hackles for rudely abandoning the words "charabanc" and "aerodrome". Dictionary compilers have been wrong before, of course. In his first dictionary in 1755, for example, Samuel Johnson listed the words "astound", "deftly" and "henchman" as obsolete.

*The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, has been busy adding a list of saucy new words to its lexicon. "Sexting", "mankini", "jeggings" and "retweet" are all new to this edition – in keeping with the dictionary's history, which saw it embrace, in 1911, the tremendously rude "petticoat", "busk" (a rigid strip to stiffen the corset front), and "cancan". The Concise Oxford English Dictionary is almost pocket-sized (well, it might fit in your petticoat but not in your jeggings) compared to its parent, The Oxford English Dictionary, which stretches to 21,000 pages. The concise version was first published in 1911, some 50 years after the first pages of the OED. Nonetheless, sections S to Z had to be written before the OED had got that far.

*The OED started life in 1857, when the Philological Society in London launched its Unregistered Words Committee to search for words that had escaped existing dictionaries. It is only now undergoing its first major revision, which is complete up to and including the word "Ryvita". The OED has 600,000 words and 3,000,000 quotations which trace the history of the language back more than 1,000 years.

*The oldest dictionaries date from about 2,300BC in what is now Syria. They were written on cuneiform tablets. Early Arabic dictionaries were sometimes compiled in rhyme order, according to the last syllable of each word.

*"What a comfort a dictionary is," wrote Lewis Carroll in 1893.

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