The Oxford Dictionary of Slang (pounds 15.99) ed John Ayto is a strange book. the demotic nature of slang makes it a difficult subject to catalogue. You therefore get odd citations like a 1997 Observer quote about Liz Hurley for the c1700 expression "peepers"; and mad entries like "auntie (1792): aunt + ie". The over-succinct alphabetical index and vague chapter headings make the book too turgid for the browser and not serious enough for the academic.
Ian Ousby's Guide to Fiction in English (Cambridge pounds 24.95/ pounds 11.95) is very user-friendly, with writers and novels indexed together. The precises are informative and concise, putting writers in their historical and artistic context. Anthony Lejeune's Concise Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (Stacey pounds 21) - Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish - suffers a little from lack of context. Ranging from Horace to Pedro Almodovar, it makes fascinating reading (did you know that Rossini said, "Give me a laundry bill and I will put it to music"?), but some dates would have been welcome.
Mike Ashley doesn't skimp on dates in his British Monarchs (Robinson pounds 25), a hefty 800-page tome on 2,000 years of rule in the British Isles. In between exhaustively detailed maps, family trees and time-charts, you can read about the punch-ups between Picts, Celts, Danes and Saxons, and find out who Oswine, Eardwulf and Athelbert were.
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (pounds 30), ed Simon Hornblower, and Antony Spawforth is addictive if, like me, you have only the sketchiest education in classical history. The book is an incredible feat of research, containing such gems as the fact that the law "permitted a kurios ("controller", male representative at law) to sell a daughter or sister into slavery if he discovered she was not a virgin."
The Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby (Bloomsbury pounds 35) details over 400 languages - dead and living - in geographical, anthropological and cultural terms. Dalby provides, in accessible and lucid prose, the history of each language, current diversity of dialects, examples of words and alphabet, and maps of usage. It's an essential source for all linguists and linguaphiles.
The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century (pounds 25), ed Michael Howard & Roger Louis, is leavened with full-page plates of photographs, posters and paintings. There is also a useful year-by-year table of chronology at the back, split into columns for International Relations, Science and Culture. Twenty-six leading historians provide the text, which is provocative and informative without being dull. It's a shame that the Collins History of the World in the Twentieth Century (HarperCollins, pounds 24.99) by J A S Grenville hasn't achieved the same effect. Its densely printed, double columned pages interspersed occasionally with small monochrome photographs is depressingly reminiscent of double History.
The seas of words in the Oxford Crossword Dictionary (pounds 16.99) makes me feel queasy, but I'm sure there are people out there who would drool over the lists of five-letter-words and six-letter-words and ... so on, up to 16 letters. You couldn't ask for anything more.
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