WITH the techno-war raging in the world of encyclopedias (recent letters in the publishing trade press make accusations of partial reviewing, no less), it seems refreshing and almost quaint to get back to basics. Johnson's Dictionary: A Modern Selection is published by Cassell (pounds 9.99) and is a must for wordies of all sorts. The editors, E L McAdam and George Milne, have obviously slanted their choice for our amusement, and amuse it does: we get "politician" defined as "a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance"; "oats" as "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people". Some definitions verge delightfully on the splenetic: the word "lubber" means "a sturdy drone; an idle, fat, bulky losel; a booby". And although we hardly expect such a selection to have any real reference function, even a quick dip makes you wonder how it is that the English of past centuries is ever comprehensible to us now. If "poignancy", for instance, is "the power of stimulating the palate; the power of irritation", "amazement" is "extreme dejection" and "ideal" means "mental", we realise that the good doctor's language is hardly our own at all.
Of the making of reference books there is no end, in these technologised days (what used to take a lexicographer with her shoe-box files several years can now happen in moments). One of the more extraordinary January publications is Everyone in Dickens, compiled by George Newlin, a three- volume set from Greenwood Publishing. For the snappy price of pounds 250 you can look up every character in Dickens' oeuvre, and when Newlin says everyone he means it - from The Old Curiosity Shop, for instance, are listed "bargemen, three, who like singing", "doctor, apparently very wise" and "Jerry, with a dog act". Irresistibly odd.
And from Hodder comes A Dictionary of Euphemisms (pounds 16.99) - once again, more entertaining for the browser than useful for not saying what you mean. For if you did not already know that "to kill a snake" is Australian for urination, how could you look it up? The lesson of this amusing tome, however, seems to be that almost every word in the language can serve as a euphemism for copulation. So if in doubt ...