Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Collins English Dictionary

CollinsThe new Collins English Dictionary has a beautiful cover, bound in fabric rather than a slippery tearable paper dustwrapper, so I warm to its tactile friendliness straight away. It’s heavy, easily as heavy as a bag of shopping, so it’s a dictionary for the office, or the room where you play Scrabble, not for carrying around. It has a jolly introduction by an eminent popular writer about words, Mark Forsyth, in a tone that wobbles between being excessively matey and outbreaks of academickese. It has a surprisingly long section on how to read the entries, which I skipped, because surely everyone knows how to read a dictionary?

Flicking through the entries in A, I noted Assange, Julian. It’s a people dictionary too, which would explain its length. Of course, that then begs the question, who is in and who is out, and how does the dictionary stop itself turning into a Who’s Who? I arrived at C for Charles. ‘Charles’ is (1) Prince Charles, and then (2) Charles, Ray. I didn’t much like Tina Charles the 1970s pop star, but her absence shows that the dictionary has made judgements about musical longevity. Does it judge musical taste as well? Is Kylie in? The Nolans? Is Charles Aznavour in ‘A’? (No, no, and no.) Continuing with Charles, we get Charles I, the first three of whom are three of the Holy Roman Emperors, and then the King of England, Scotland and Wales who was beheaded. So chronology matters within numberings. The last Charles, even after Charles XIV of Sweden and Norway, is Charles the Great, ‘another name for Charlemagne’, which gets us back where started: Charlemagne is the Alpha and Omega of Charleses Regnant.

Over on the other page, we have a sample sequence: Charminar, charmonium, charneco, charnel, Charnley, Charolais, Charon (ferryman), Charon (Plutonian satellite, or can we say ‘moon now?), charoset, Charpentier. Neither of the two Charpentiers listed are the only one I know: the 1920s French boxer. I also only knew charnel, Charolais and the Charons: the rest of that list was new to me. Leaping forward to H, I randomly alight at: Hope, Sir Antony, Hopeh or Hopei, hophead, Hopi, Hopkins (Sir Anthony, Sir Frederick Gowland, Gerard Manley, Harry Lloyd), hoplite, hoplology, hopper, Hopper, hopple and Hoppus Foot. Another mixture of the known, the vaguely familiar and the new to me, which is what I’d expect. Hope, Sir Antony, is favoured with a 7-line biography, which is more than Ray Charles or any of the other Charleses were given. This seems odd, given that very few people apart from the bookish have heard of H, Sir A, though many more will have heard of The Prisoner of Zenda. So are the bookish and the musically highbrow in charge of deciding which words go in? They have a taste for scatology and words to make the back row of the classroom giggle, so there is a definite nod towards the popular or casual user.

I looked for some words from technical vocabularies. Churn, from statistics, meaning the movement over time of demographic characteristics within population samples, was not listed, though ten other definitions for churn were, including this unexpected metaphor: ‘(of a government) to pay benefits to a wide category of people and claw it back by taxation of the well-off’. Do we expect political neutrality from a dictionary? It’s certainly a vivid image. Cross, as in cutting on the cross in dressmaking, wasn’t listed in the 20 or more entries for that very useful word, though the sense of a diagonal was. Corrie (I got stuck in the Cs), that evocative, chilly word derived from Gaelic meaning a scooped-out valley-like space underneath a mountain peak, is in! Triumph. But it doesn’t have a definition of its own, because we are directed to ‘another name for cirque’. Alpine mountaineering takes precedence over British hillwalking, evidently, since cwm is subordinate to ‘cirque’ as well.

Moving decisively across the Rubicon of M, I look for runcible, just to be awkward, and it’s there. So is shiva (a word whose exact meaning I’ve often wondered about: now I know, the Jewish period of mourning), verisimility (yes), and Tenar (no). I note with pleasure the combination of first and last words as the header for p age 2029: tepid – teriyaki, and look for more. Transoceanic  – Transvaal, sasquatch – satire and luscious – Lützen are found quickly, reminding me how good this game is for idle moments.

How does one judge one dictionary over another? My Shorter Oxford is now pretty old so I want a new one, because I will always prefer to get off my chair, walk to the other side of the room, get the dictionary off the shelf, lay it on a flat surface and look up the word I want, rather than stare yet again at a screen of words that have no known guarantee. Would I buy the 2014 Collins, if I were looking at a bookshop shelf bowed with the weight of these vast but beautiful monsters of wisdom? I think I might. It’s very attractive to look at, use, and hold (briefly), and the pleasing feel of the cover has grown on me even more while writing this review (40 minutes). I’m not going to judge a dictionary on the words I know that it doesn’t have, because I know those words, I don’t need them defined. It’s the words that I don’t know that I need to have an opinion on, and with 722,000 to choose from, the largest single-volume English dictionary in print, the Collins is pretty likely to have them.

Collins English Dictionary, 12th edition, 978-0-00-752274-3, £45

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About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

3 comments on “Collins English Dictionary

  1. Jackie
    November 5, 2014

    I was curious as to how a dictionary would be reviewed and this exceeded my expectations! Very entertaining.Who would think someone would chuckle all the way through an article about dictionaries? It also seems to have more entries devoted to people than most of the dictionaries I’m familiar with. Wonder if that is peculiar to the publisher’s origins? And how strange that there would be a lengthy section on how to read the entries. Maybe that was to fulfill a legal requirement?

  2. kirstyjane
    November 6, 2014

    Oh, I loved this. Thank you, Kate. And three huzzahs for Sir Antony Hope!

  3. kirstyjane
    November 6, 2014

    Also, that wobbly introduction. It’s something I’ve noticed in popular science/academic outreach books recently: that oscillation between highly technical and chatty-jovial. But it might be because I am simply reading more of them at the moment.

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This entry was posted on November 5, 2014 by in Entries by Kate, Non fiction: language and tagged , , , .



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