Good dictionary for a writer?
April 27, 2005 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Which dictionaries would you recommend as a gift for a writer friend?

A writer friend of mine recently mentioned that she needed to get a new dictionary. I thought I'd get her a nice one as a gift since her birthday is coming up. Are there any particular editions that you would recommend? We'll pretend for now that price is no object.
posted by hootch to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If price really is no object, then The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ($102) or The Compact Oxford English Dictionary ($248) would be two ways to prove you really do care. Now excuse me while I go slobber over the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary, which, by God, one day I shall own.
posted by headspace at 10:40 AM on April 27, 2005

I love the old Roget's Thesaurus. Not II, but the rambling old version.
posted by inksyndicate at 10:40 AM on April 27, 2005

Look at a used bookstore for the Compact OED; it has all the content of the 20-volume set, but in really, really tiny print. I don't use mine all that much, but I feel way cool when I pull out the included magnifying glass to look up some obscure word. And it looks great on a shelf.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2005

The FAQ of the Usenet group alt.usage.english has a section on recommended dictionaries. There are other sections of recommended books as well, should nothing in the dictionaries section work out. My recommendations would mirror theirs. Keep in mind that while the Oxford family is great, an American writer really needs a dictionary that reflects American, not British, lexicography -- go for W3 or MWCD10 over any of the OEDs.
posted by mendel at 10:45 AM on April 27, 2005

Well, if money were no object, get her the compact OED (I'll assume storage for the full-sized version might be an issue for her). Only $250 at Amazon! If you object to that price, I've got the American Heritage dictionary. It's pretty good.

It might be fun to get her some more obscure philological works instead, like "The F Word" or "Mrs Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words."
posted by adamrice at 10:46 AM on April 27, 2005

Best answer: I really like my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.
posted by mealy-mouthed at 10:47 AM on April 27, 2005

At a much lower price point...Samuel Johnson's dictionary can be fun to browse. Big-box booksellers sometimes offer it in a fancy-schmancy binding over in their discount racks, it being public domain and all. I think I paid $10 for mine.
posted by gimonca at 10:52 AM on April 27, 2005

Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English can be had in paperback for $35 or so. Also fun is Francis Grose's 1811 dictionary of the vulgar tongue;: A dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pickpocket eloquence. And how could I have forgotten Johnson?!
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:54 AM on April 27, 2005

Dictionaries of foreign language colloquialisms can be a lot of fun, too.
Could also help stimulate creativity.
posted by gimonca at 10:56 AM on April 27, 2005

Most writers and editors seem to prefer the American Heritage dictionary.
posted by curtm at 10:59 AM on April 27, 2005

You can get the whole OED on CD for US $215 (yeah, I prefer books to screens in general, but the electronic version is probably easier to use than the Compact OED, which I say as an owner of the latter.)

My favorite dictionary of American English is the American Heritage, as others have already recommended.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:08 AM on April 27, 2005

Most writers and editors seem to prefer the American Heritage dictionary.

Hmmm. In my experience most editors seem to prefer Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (currently in its 11th edition), which is handily desk-sized, or Webster's Third International Dictionary, which is a big fat thing, dictionary-stand-sized.
posted by scratch at 11:12 AM on April 27, 2005

If you're stymied by the cost of the OEDs (I have the Shorter and love it) you can also consider a dictionary with a humorous bent. Your writer friend will likely appreciate the addition to the bookshelf.

For example, my own shelf includes The Meshuggenary and The F Word, the latter of which was compiled by the now-editor of the OED, of all people. Both were gifts and both are fun to own. It should be easy to find something that appeals to your friend's interests.
posted by werty at 11:14 AM on April 27, 2005

The F Word, the latter of which was compiled by the now-editor of the OED

The "F-Word" was compiled by Jesse Sheidlower, who was until recently the Principal North American Editor of the OED, not "the" editor of the OED. "The" editor of the OED is John Simpson. Sheidlower is now an editor at large for the OED. Much of the material for "F-Word" was pulled from the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for which he used to be project editor when it was being done by Random House, under the chief editorship of Jonathan Lighter. Sheidlower did add supplemental material and the front matter is highly recommended. For what it's worth, I am now the project editor for HDAS, still working with Dr. Lighter, for Oxford University Press.

As for general dictionary recommendations, I tend to recommend:

Merriam-Webster Collegiate 11th edition.
New Oxford American Dictionary (second edition due on shelves in a matter of weeks).
American Heritage 4th edition.

As for specialty dictionaries:

Historical Dictionary of American Slang, of which so far A- through O has been published. Volume III, P through Sk or so, is due in 2006; vol. IV covering through Z plus a bibliography is due in 2008.

For complete works, the Cassell Dictionary of Slang is a good work, though its definition of slang is very broad and some terms are unsubstantial. A new three-volume edition is due in Oct. 2006, now including many citations.

Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 8th edition is also complete, but it is less reliable and tends to skew heavily towards British slang. A new edition, under the editorships of Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, is also due next fall.

The Wentworth and Flexner, and the Chapman, slang dictionaries are now out-of-date and were not that spectacular to begin with.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:34 AM on April 27, 2005

Regardless if you're going to splurge on the OED or not, buy the book The Professor and the Madman. It's about how the OED was written. It's a fascinating story. If you love dictionaries already, you'll love them even more after this book!
posted by SheIsMighty at 11:36 AM on April 27, 2005

American Heritage may not be the most comprehensive dictionary, but it is definitely the most fun. The people I know who want a dictionary because they love language, not just because they want an authoritative reference, tend to choose American Heritage.
posted by jjg at 11:43 AM on April 27, 2005

I'm a writer, and I've got the Shorter OED, and it's proven to be just dandy for my needs.
posted by gompa at 12:05 PM on April 27, 2005

In addition to seconding the suggestions for the OED, books that I couldn't live without for reference:
Rubin's A Writer's Companion
Kipfer's Order of Things
Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
and a good visual dictionary

Kipfer's Flip Dictionary is a nice supplement to the standard dictionary as well.

I find that paper dictionaries are no longer useful for me, so I use the digital OED among others. Luckily, my work buys me these things.
posted by Gucky at 12:07 PM on April 27, 2005

not a dictionary exactly, but Mencken's The American Language rules
posted by matteo at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2005

I second the Mencken, OED and Simon Winchester recommendations. Also, I throw this in: The Visual Thesaurus. The desktop edition, at $30, is pretty nifty.
posted by mds35 at 1:18 PM on April 27, 2005

Compact OED. No doubt.
posted by nj_subgenius at 1:24 PM on April 27, 2005

The Macmillan Visual Dictionary is the champion of dictionaries. Let's say you want to know what the plasticky tip at the end of a shoelace is called. Well, your ordinary dictionary won't help you there. But the Visual Dictionary will (it's called an aglet).
posted by Panfilo at 1:57 PM on April 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Late and affirmimg observation--go for the Visual Dictionary--fun, helpful and will dig you out of problems that others will not touch--unless he is a "dictionary person" most of the material in a standard dictionary is so readily available on the net--the visual dictionary is a whole new perspective Frank
posted by rmhsinc at 2:27 PM on April 27, 2005

The poet's manual and rhyming dictionary is the best rhyming dictionary in the world. Ever.
posted by seanyboy at 2:44 PM on April 27, 2005

That's awesome. I never even knew there was a word for aglet until someone told me a few months ago.

I would have suggested a subscription to OED online, but it's $295 for individuals. Yowch.
posted by grouse at 2:46 PM on April 27, 2005

Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. But it will keep her from writing until she's read it all the way through.
posted by jfuller at 2:59 PM on April 27, 2005

Best answer: As an editor, I use the new 11th edition of M-W's Collegiate, which would be a fine gift if she doesn't already have it. But... well, it's a little boring. You know? It's like giving somebody socks. If I were doing the gift-giving, I'd go with AHD4, as recommended by mealy-mouthed and others. Not only is it an excellent dictionary in all the practical ways, not only does it have Indo-European and Semitic etymological appendices that provide endless hours of fun for anyone interested in the history of words, but as a physical object it's incredibly beautiful, and it has many full-color illustrations that are often beautiful as well as useful.

Another possibility is the M-W Dictionary of English Usage, far and away the best usage guide.
posted by languagehat at 3:03 PM on April 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

The dictionary that I have really been enjoying lately was a gift from my father -- The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, by Joseph T. Shipley.

It's organized by Indo-European root, and has an English index in the back. Each entry starts with the root and delves into derivations, conflations, and confusions, often ending in a very different place than it started. The entry for "moro": foolish, touches on Moliere, eugenics by way of the 1933 OED supplement, More's _Utopia_, Othello, Cicero, and the "Immorality Bible", which "by omitting a 't', promised immorality everlasting to all the faithful, for which overoptimistic assurance King James I fined the printer £300."

It's really a fascinating and hilarious read -- I've yet to use it for reference, but it does give you a great sense of the sweep of the language and ideas, history, etc. etc.
posted by tew at 3:14 PM on April 27, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, amazing answers from all. Thanks! I did say we'll pretend that price is no object, so I'll be shying away from the various Oxford dictionaries mentioned, but it was interesting to hear about them. Sight unseen, I'm leaning towards the American Heritage Dictionary. I'll stop by a couple bookstores on the way home and take a look at the various recommendations. Thanks again!
posted by hootch at 5:08 PM on April 27, 2005

I really like reverse dictionaries for writing. Particularly Barbara Ann Kipfer's Writer's Digest Flip Dictionary.
posted by aaronh at 5:59 PM on April 27, 2005

"Garner's Modern American Usage" by Bryan Garner is the best effing book. Currently $26 on the web. Not a dictionary exactly, but awesome for a writer. It's over 800 pages and just packed.
posted by about_time at 7:28 PM on April 27, 2005

I've been looking at the Visual Thesaurus which is just a really fun to play around with. They do a desktop version.
posted by Navek Rednam at 3:38 AM on April 28, 2005

"Garner's Modern American Usage" by Bryan Garner is the best effing book.

No, it's not. It's yet another "don't use this construction because it's wrong" compilation. If you like being told what to do for no good reason, buy Garner or join the Army. If you want the actual facts of English usage, buy the Merriam-Webster usage dictionary, which also comes in an excellent concise edition (available for $6.95 and up).
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on April 28, 2005

I love the The Chambers Dictionary myself. The linked review is of an older edition, but describes its content beautifully--and the newest edition retains the "whiff of Dr Johnson."
posted by idest at 7:09 AM on April 28, 2005

Response by poster: Follow-up: I bought the American Heritage dictionary and she loved it. I mentioned this post and she printed it out and keeps it in the dictionary.
posted by hootch at 7:11 PM on October 10, 2005

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