Mind your Dictionary

I want to chat about dictionaries.

I do read dictionaries. I do this for fun sometimes. One of my greatest investments was a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary online.

In the last week I have had a few customers ask me about which dictionary they should buy. To me, this is analogous with me asking a random stranger what my favourite food is. How the hell am I supposed to guess what works for you?

So I thought I would share what it is that I look for in the lexical good book:

1. Tricky concepts: Examples of the first words I look up are “sarcasm”, “need” & “want” (to compare the definitions), “gene” and “F*@!” (though spelt without the ridiculous replacement characters). From these words, I can get a fairly good idea about whether the definitions fit into the concepts I hold for the subjects, whether they are distinct- as in need vs want, and whether they convey difficult concepts- as in the swear words.

2. Encyclopaedian entries: Here I look at those historical concept-gods from whom I derive my understanding of the world, and decide whether they are given appropriate homage. Usually I look for Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud and Adam Smith.

3. Etymology: I like to know where my words are coming from, so as I am checking out the entries, I see what extra information I get about a word. Having studied linguistics, I like to know where words have come from, if they are listed as archaic or colloquialisms and how they are classified in grammar studies. Most people don’t care about all this, but I do.

4. Finally (and probably of the least value for me) I check out for Australianisms. Usually I look for mateship, dinkum and sprawl.

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So that’s my big test of a dictionary. And what I would love to hear is whether other people have set test-words, or am I the only people who does this?

Marcus – The Co-op Bundoora


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