On Dictionaries

For the same absurd reason someone might want to buy a print dictionary in an era defined by the wealth and impatience of the Internet, I set out to review and form a strong opinion on major print dictionaries. It seems pointless, even picayune, to care for massive books of definitions, spellings, etymologies, and usage notes when most of these can be found far quicker online. Merriam-Webster, MacMillan, Cambridge, Collins all have free online dictionaries, and Google (as well as macOS’s Dictionary) provides definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary. The Online Etymology Dictionary is the best single resource for English etymologies. Only English usage requires a book or at least expensive iOS software for authoritative information. So why bother at all with a physical tome of words? I have three good reasons, each as unconvincing as the last, unless you bear similar romantic convictions. One, no matter how detailed a webpage, little trounces the feel of a book, especially a heavy one, in your hands. Two, webpages distract with advertisements and designs built to suck your attention away to irrelevant lists and pop news and videos and things that are far more exciting than the definition you needed. A physical dictionary provides no games, no advertisements, and no things you should find more exciting. In fact, a dictionary rarely makes it easy to find the word you’re looking for. Where a website can only provide exactly what you want, a dictionary provides far more. And it does so with beautifully tight font and the feeling of long-tested knowledge. As I said, purely romantic.

The American dictionary began with Noah Webster, the namesake of many modern dictionaries and the reason we Americans spell color, traveled, and estrogen without those pesky extra letters. He was a weirdo, though, and injected language with a bit of an Orwellian fixation wherever he could (soop, masheen, wimmin, and dawter never caught on). He, and the Merriam brothers after his death, waged a serious linguistic war against Joseph Worcester, his rival in the American dictionary business. This war ended with Webster’s work, in the Merriam brothers’ hands, as the definitive American dictionary. But Noah Webster is now dead, his surname in the public domain, and the market diluted with more dictionaries than we need. So which to choose?

I developed criteria from which to select the winning dictionary. For my own biased needs, I decided that the most important features of a dictionary are spelling, syllabification, and definition—everything else is extra. My complete list included spelling (standard past and plural forms, proper italicization of certain loanwords), pronunciation, definitions, etymology, syllabification, formatting, and taboo entries.

Unfortunately, no major dictionary wants to italicize loanwords, and syllabification is not as prescriptive as I thought it was. I had expected Latin words (e.g., exempli gratia, id est, et cetera) to remain unitalicized and others (coup de grâce, raison d’être, doppelgänger) to be italicized. Some dictionaries did, but most did not. Bryan A. Garner himself writes of no rule for italicization other than that the commonly-used ones tend to lose italicization first. So much for that. Syllabification, on the other hand, is far more complex than I had assumed. While major dictionaries likely use the same system—Maximal Onset Principle—to syllabify words, the results are not always comparable. Cashier, for example, syllabifies as cash-ier according to Oxford’s books, no matter the definition, but cash-ier, according to Merriam-Webster, for the noun and ca-shier for the verb. English, according to the English, separates into Eng-lish, but according to the Americans into En-glish.

All that remained was to collect the dictionaries themselves. I found six at my library (spanning nearly half a century) and four at the bookstore. Five of these dictionaries were dull, uninteresting, and worth no detailed comments. These are the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2003, Webster’s New World Basic Dictionary of American English, American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Oxford Dictionary of English, Second Edition, Revised, and Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition (the preferred dictionary of the AP Stylebook). Of the five remaining dictionaries, three put up little competition, although were worth noting for various reasons. These three are as follows.

American Heritage Dictionary (2000) and Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus (2014)
Houghton Mifflin has produced what I can call the only two bad dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary was so overstuffed with color photos and drawings that I found it hard to keep my eyes focused on the dull black words. Their Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, available at Barnes & Noble, lacks etymologies, taboo words, modern words, thumb or edge indexes, and general entries. The missing entries Houghton Mifflin replaced with choice synonyms. Like a shampoo that advertises itself both shampoo and conditioner, a dictionary that advertises itself both dictionary and thesaurus does neither well.

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1999
This dictionary had inconsistent italicization (coup de main but not coup de grâce, which raises the question why we are more unfamiliar with surprise attacks than surprise killings) and useless thumb indexes. After ten dictionaries, I can confidently and with great certainty proclaim that I hate thumb indexes. But Random House, in this edition, takes the cake. The NO tab, for example, sends you not to the beginning of N or O, as you might expect, but to mung bean and Muscat, with a handful of pages to go before N begins. Thumb indexes, which American dictionaries fetishize as much as custom pronunciations, are a waste of time and space. They are, even ignoring Random House, designed not to be useful but to be aesthetically pleasing—roughly evenly-distributed down the fore edge. This is true whether you grab Random House or Merriam-Webster (where the NO at least has the common courtesy to send you to O’odham and operativeness). No matter how pretty they are, thumb indexes require you to map the word twice in your head—once when you pick up the dictionary and again when you find where the thumb tab sent you.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, 1986
I enjoyed this dictionary only because it felt that nigger was safe and all right to print, but it wouldn’t dare display fuck on any page. I won’t say fuck has the same ethno-historical importance to our culture as the racial slur, but it’s far more important (and sometimes appropriate) to the American lexicon than cunt, which the dictionary felt was okay to print. Search as I might, I couldn’t find fuck, fucking, fuckhead, or fucked-up anywhere in this dictionary. God forbid 2662 pages give me so much as a quick fuck. It should never be the job of a dictionary to censor our language, and I cannot see why we should trust a linguistic lexicon if it quietly omits common words.


All fun aside, I have two remaining dictionaries. And although this list is by no means comprehensive, I’m not surprised that the winning entries come from Merriam-Webster and Oxford.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition
This is the American standard, the lovechild of American spelling, used by giants like The New Yorker and The Chicago Manual of Style. The layout is authoritative. Open this dictionary and behold how a dictionary ought to look: gentle cream pages dense with justified columns, bold sans-serif entries and clean serif descriptions. The few drawings are stylistically consistent and small. But despite the authoritativeness, Merriam-Webster’s flagship dictionary is a maze to read. Many definitions begin three or four lines after their bolded entries, with thin brackets and varying symbols tucking away etymologies and alternative forms, all of which looks close enough to the definition that the eyes glaze over and wander lost through the text, until, finally, they find the definitions. Merriam-Webster also lists definitions chronologically, from oldest to most recent, unlike other dictionaries, which list definitions from most to least frequently used.

Merriam-Webster also represents a descriptivist dictionary. It includes octopi (an improper plural stemming from false Latinization) and treats uninterested and disinterested as more or less interchangeable (not interested and unbiased, respectively, for those who care). Yet, just when I think it has made up its mind, the dictionary (mis)spells website as Web site, which is wrong by even prescriptivist standards—Garner calls Web site “a clunker” and The Chicago Manual of Style encourages the single, lowercase word. Add to this the chronological approach to definitions and a couple other prescriptive habits, and we have a dictionary that can’t figure out whether it wants to be hip and modern or old and authoritative.

But above all, what is Merriam-Webster’s worst crime? Thumb indexes.

New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition
The New Oxford has two weaknesses: the 2017 pages are thin and feel easy to tear, and the design does not match the authoritative look of the Merriam-Webster. The three-per-page columns use a large left-aligned font with blank space that makes for a breezy feel. It’s bigger, physically, than the Merriam-Webster, and the apparent breeziness does not translate into its contents. One of its most beautiful features, which I call upon all dictionaries to adopt, is the edge index—dark blue ink that tells me how many pages each letter occupies. I may not be as quick to find O as with a thumb index, but if I’m looking for, say, obstreperous, I know how thick the O section is and can estimate where I need to open the book. The New Oxford is also the only dictionary in this list to not include octopi, which makes this usage snob all the happier (for the fun of it, I dig octopodes—rhymes with Hercules—but the proper plural is octopuses). But as with the Merriam-Webster, I have found usage inconsistencies in the New Oxford—sometimes it leans prescriptive, sometimes descriptive. It seems that modern dictionaries feel a compulsion to both follow the trendiness of descriptive ignorance and to adhere to an old-fashioned attention to Standard English. Dictionaries should either make up their minds or leave usage tips to experts. I was quite ready to purchase the New Oxford American Dictionary when I discovered that Merriam-Webster prints their latest dictionary without thumb indexes (although hard to find). I compiled a list of about ten terms and respective definitions, which I sent to two testers. One scored far in favor of New Oxford American Dictionary’s definitions, the other scored the books at par. Since I also preferred New Oxford’s definitions, although only slightly, I settled on buying my first Oxford dictionary.

A week later I found the Merriam-Webster for five bucks.