Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Some misconceptions about dictionaries

I had an interesting experience at a book exhibition some months ago. Two college teachers from Eluru, a neighbouring town, asked me to recommend them two good English dictionaries – one for their college, and another for their children studying in high schools. I took them to a stall which had a variety of dictionaries and showed them five learner's dictionaries: Oxford Advanced Learner's DictionaryLongman Dictionary of Contemporary EnglishCollins Cobuild English Language Dictionary,Cambridge Learner's Dictionary, and Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners. ‘Which is the best?’ they asked me. ‘It depends,’ I said, and explained to them the special features of each dictionary. A few more visitors to the stall joined in, and every one of them had a number of queries about dictionaries. The queries revealed two things: one, many people have several misconceptions about dictionaries, and, two, their choice of a dictionary is often an uninformed choice.
One of the misconceptions concerns the name 'Oxford'. People believe that theOxford English Dictionary (OED) is the best. Best in what sense? The OED, in its original 12-volume form, is a scholarly dictionary, not a learner's dictionary, and so it is not very useful as a general-purpose dictionary. In one of the stalls, the entire set, originally priced at Rs 1,60,000, was on offer for Rs 60,000. A few lecturers from a degree college wanted to know whether they could recommend it for their college library. ‘It's a historical dictionary,’ I said to them and explained what I meant. ‘Before buying it, decide whether it will serve your purposes.’
A related misconception is that the Oxford dictionaries are authoritative dictionaries. I think this misconception is due to the OED imbuing the name 'Oxford' with an aura of lexicographic authority. People blindly buy any dictionary which has 'Oxford' in its name: Concise OxfordShorter Oxford English Dictionary (2 volumes), or Pocket Oxford. All three are basically native-speaker dictionaries, and they cannot serve all the needs of foreign learners of English. The only dictionary of the Oxford family which can fulfil most of the needs of foreign learners of English is the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD). The 'Oxford Writing Tutor,' appended to the dictionary, adds to its value.
But OALD is only one of the several learner's dictionaries available, and it is by no means the best. For definitions, my choice is the Collins Cobuild because, unlike other dictionaries which only use a phrase to define each headword, Collins explains each entry word by means of a complete sentence. But it is not easy on the eye; OALD has an edge over it, as far as the typeface is concerned. But the typeface is much better in the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary. Besides, it uses two colours.
The most appealing dictionary in terms of design features is the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners. It has a well-designed reading path with attractive sign-posting: words with greater frequency are printed in red; for words with many meanings, there is a 'menu' on an orange screen; and, if a word has many collocations, they are shown in a box at the end of the entry. But any learner's dictionary is good enough; your choice can depend upon which one appeals to you most.
Let me conclude with a caveat. Dictionaries can be disappointing. Just one example. Is a 'dilemma' a situation in which one has to choose between two courses of action or more than two? Are all the choices undesirable, or are they equally good or bad? Lexicographers don't seem to know!

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