Dictionary Recommendations
April 11, 2011 11:12 AM   Subscribe

English dictionary recommendations?

I'd like to find an English dictionary that covers vocabulary I come across in Shakespeare and contemporary scholarly literature in the areas of history and philosophy. I don't need definitions of 'e-mail,' 'lol,' or 'grow your business.'

I have the Shorter OED at home (and it covers the vocabulary range I need), but the volumes are too physically bulky to be easily handled--I'm looking for something to keep by my bed and to carry with me on the subway and on holidays.

As a 'nice-to-have' consideration, one that uses IPA symbols to give pronunciations would be attractive, since I've had to get used to that system while learning French.
posted by Paquda to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You don't say if you're in the US, but most American dictionaries don't use IPA. Your best bet for American dictionaries that aren't unwieldy are the "college" editions of the American Heritage and Webster's New World (as distinguished from Merriam-Webster -- the name "Webster" is outside of copyright). American Heritage is one of the less prescriptive dictionaries, giving a usage panel discussion for words with disputed uses. Webster's New World generally has more thorough etymologies.
posted by stopgap at 11:35 AM on April 11, 2011

Thank you--I'm in Canada, though the literature I read is not really particularly Canadian at all. Does 'college' dictionary have a particular meaning?
posted by Paquda at 11:58 AM on April 11, 2011

Does it have to be a physcial book? My library subscribes to the OED online with remote access, and a smartphone/laptop is going to be much more portable than most paper dictionaries.
posted by momus_window at 12:02 PM on April 11, 2011

If you're just looking up the definitions of words, you probably want the American Heritage Dictionary - which I think covers primarily American usage, pronunciation, etc. but should be fine for broad "what does this word mean" use even outside North America - or Webster's Collegiate.

Those were the standards in my high school and college days, outside of specialized uses where you might want the OED (which is not really a "definitions" sort of dictionary) or something even more specialized.
posted by Sara C. at 12:11 PM on April 11, 2011

OED online sounds great but m not a student at any university though, so I'd need a service the general public could subscribe to. Also I only have a BlackBerry, so it'd have to be an app for that platform. But in any case, I'd still be interested to know if if there were any hard copy dictionaries along the lines of what I'm looking for--because I like books, and also because I don't want to worry about dropping some device into a puddle, travelling out of signal range, etc.
posted by Paquda at 12:11 PM on April 11, 2011

I think the definition of "college" or "collegiate" for a dictionary implies that it's for more advanced readers. In other words it's still a dictionary devoted to definitions of words, but it's not for beginning/intermediate readers who will be looking up more basic words. In other words, the sort of dictionary you'd take away to college* for use writing essays on Milton or Hume.

There may be a more specific definition within lexicography circles.

*They're also a very popular high school graduation gift, which is probably why dictionary publishers make sure to throw that word into the title.
posted by Sara C. at 12:16 PM on April 11, 2011

My local public library offers its patrons online access to the OED for free. As in, you can use it from home by entering your library card number. Have a look to see if your local public library does, too.
posted by kindall at 12:21 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really like the Chambers dictionary. It contains a lot of Shakesperian and Spenserian words as well as a lot of Scottish words (I believe it's Scottish in origin). I use it a lot for crosswords as it has a very rich vocabulary but is contained in one volume.
posted by mukade at 12:38 PM on April 11, 2011

Okay, have placed an Amazon order for the Chambers dictionary, thank you.
posted by Paquda at 12:45 PM on April 11, 2011

Sadly, any new dictionary will have buzzwords in it, as it was discovered a decade or so back that it was a major marketing point. You might want to look at the Oxford Canadian, Collins-Gage (disclaimer: I know and have worked with the teams at both Collins and Gage), or the Chambers. Chambers might fit your historical requirements more, but I can't remember if it uses IPA.
posted by scruss at 12:50 PM on April 11, 2011

A dictionary editor weighing in here. I've worked on dictionaries for Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Collins.

Chambers Dictionary is a good choice, though in my opinion, the Shorter OED is already the best non-OED dictionary you could own. Just make sure you have the latest edition. In many ways, it's superior to OED because it's more current and leaves out many entries you will never need unless you read a lot of 16th an 17th Century literature.

I would agree with most of the recommendations made above, except that none of them are particularly portable. (And I would not recommend Webster's New World; the only thing that keeps it afloat is that newsrooms use it out of habit long after the original decision by AP and others to choose it over Merriam-Webster as the spiteful byproduct of a legal dispute. It is just serviceable; I have recommended it in the past before I spent enough time with it).

If I were you, I'd got straight to the Blackberry app store and buy the first one of these that's under $40 and forget about paper. They're listed in order of quality and completeness.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
Merriam-Webster's Unabridged
American Heritage Dictionary
New Oxford American Dictionary
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate

That's it. After that, it goes downhill quickly or else the dictionaries are targeted at learners of English.

The college/collegiate dictionaries try to include the vocabulary an undergraduate might need to know as they pursue their studies.

Scruss, you seem to be using "buzzwords" to mean "new words that in their newness are repugnant to me or cause me discomfiture." New words have been a part of marketing for dictionaries for far more than a decade. Here's a typical ad from 1899.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:45 PM on April 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Thank you, Mo Nickels. I will look into a Shorter OED app for my my BlackBerry. By the way, in fairness, it's me not Scruss, who should be be criticized for the buzzwords thing--Scruss was just picking up on something in the tone of my question.
posted by Paquda at 2:05 PM on April 11, 2011

Oxford offers free, public access on its website. It's probably all you need for general purpose reference.

If you want something specific for Shakespeare or Spencer, then it's not going to help you very much. (It doesn't work for bowre or sowre, for example.) When you get into something that specific, you may need a specific reference work.

A quick look for Shakespeare-related dictionaries turns up this, this, this and this.

I do understand what you're saying about the inclusion of pop culture in reference materials. It's time to replace my Oxford and I went dictionary shopping not so long ago. Flipping through various replacement options, it seemed that there was lots of pop-culture fluff that gave the work a very dumbed-down feeling. It made it worse because many of the people named in the dictionary weren't current, but were popular in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. So it wasn't current at all, and it wasn't old enough to be really historical. Plus, even though I was looking at Canadian and British versions of Oxford, most of the geographic references were American. I still think I'll probably go and buy the Canadian version (it was the last compiled with actual Canadian staff members, i.e. pre-lay-offs), but I may have to hold my nose when I do so.
posted by sardonyx at 2:14 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I suggested a "college" dictionary, I just meant that that level of editing is usually the best balance between an unwieldy mega-volume and an over-abridged (often paperback) dictionary.
posted by stopgap at 2:55 PM on April 11, 2011

A big, big seconding of Chambers. By far my favourite English dictionary. But make sure you get "The Chambers Dictionary" and not "Chambers 21st Century Dictionary", which is not as good for the old and obscure terms.

One of the charms of Chambers is the occasional hidden comedy definitions such as:

eclair, n, a cake, long in shape but short in duration, with cream filling and chocolate icing.

middle-aged, adj, between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner.
posted by Decani at 3:34 AM on April 12, 2011

If you're looking for something specifically Shakespeare-related, you could do worse than C.T. Onions' A Shakespeare Glossary, although it omits a lot of the naughtier definitions and connotations. (For that you can have a look at Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy.)

If you're looking for something more recent, there's also the excellent Shakespeare's Words by David and Ben Crystal.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:16 PM on April 12, 2011

> Scruss was just picking up on something in the tone of my question

Yeah, sorry; I have no issue with new words in dictionaries — hey, it's part of what they're for — but I'm still really annoyed by a Random Act of Management that went on at Collins at least a decade ago. Ignore me.

A taste of the demented wonders of the Chambers is in "Words, Wit & Wisdom" (pdf; archive.org).
posted by scruss at 7:10 PM on April 12, 2011

If you're looking for something specifically Shakespeare-related, you could do worse than C.T. Onions' A Shakespeare Glossary

Yes, that's a really handy book. I guess I just wish that some compact general-purpose dictionary could cover that vocabulary too. It seems do-able: Onions isn't that long, the content wouldn't take up that much space within a larger dictionary. And doesn't it seem reasonable for English dictionaries to cover what's considered the most important piece of literature in the language?

I do agree with Scruss about the new words, for the reason that they take up space and space is at a premium. Why include words most people already know at the expense of words they don't?

But I guess all this just amounts to a personal wish list I have for a dictionary.
posted by Paquda at 7:26 AM on April 13, 2011

I got the Chambers Dictionary today--Good recommendation--Thanks!
posted by Paquda at 1:11 PM on April 13, 2011

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