Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Dictionaries, part 1

We own multiple dictionaries. I wouldn't say it's a collection, as such, but we're in possession of at least 5 different dictionaries, and we actually have two copies of two of them. One of those that we have two copies of is a miserable mass market paperback with a cover that brags:

The #1 New York Times Bestseller
Over 25,000,000 Copies in Print!

This is, of course, Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

I'm a bit fuzzy on why we landed on this particular dictionary the first time. All I recall is that we wanted a dictionary in the car. I suspect that very little thought went into a selection process at the time. The second copy was purchased in an airport, and despite my knowledge that it's so pathetically lacking, I bought it because it was the only dictionary available at said airport.

I was recently dismayed to discover that this dictionary does not include the word curmudgeon. It may not be the most frequently used word in the English language, but it's certainly in common parlance. This absence is quite disturbing to me.

Besides my own desire to know just how good or bad the various dictionaries in my life are, I am occasionally asked by customers at the bookstore, "Which dictionary is best?" That's really not what they want to know. What they really want to know is "Which affordable, portable dictionary will suit my kid best in school?" But that's beside the point. I've decided that I'm going to come up with something (a guide, if you will) that I can point to to say "I've carefully considered this question, and here's the conclusion I have reached."


On a couple of car trips, I have looked in the awful car dictionary for words that I thought would stump it. I was astonished at how incredibly easy it was to do so. I would estimate that of the words I tried, I had a successful stump rate of between 50 and 75%.

I have compiled a list of 26 words (plus 1 bonus word--which I have not found in any of the dictionaries I've checked so far) that I was unable to find in said dictionary. And I am now in the process of compiling a table of how various dictionaries perform on this list.

I have so far checked two other mass market paperback dictionaries on my lunch break at the book store, plus I've checked three of the four larger dictionaries we have here at the house. As for the fourth larger dictionary, I seem to have misplaced it, so I'll have to wait until it turns up. Others will be added, as time permits.

dictionary comparison table, aardwolf, aitch, anhedonia, Baha'i, bumf, capybara, cavy, curmudgeon, em, epistemology, Fuji, full nelson, Gadzooks, goombah, habanero, Jainism, Kilimanjaro, nappy, ninja, ninjutsu, Orinoco, pariah, schadenfreude, Scientology, Sufism, zorilla, kayfabe

1. Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Copyright 2003
2. Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. Copyright 1993
3. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright 1993
4. The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition. Copyright 1988
5. The Oxford American Dictionary. Copyright 1980
6. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
7. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2001
8. The American Century Dictionary. Copyright 1995
9. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
10. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. Copyright 1997

A note on the words chosen:
I would consider all of these words to be in reasonably common parlance, although it's surely fair to say that some are more common than others. I wouldn't say that any is a technical term. Some of the words deserve a special note of their own:

Fuji, Kilimanjaro, Orinoco: These are in a particular class of word. They are geographical entries. I'm willing to accept their absence, as long as there is a consistent policy that seems to be at the heart of the absence. So I find it absolutely forgivable that the New Shorter Oxford excludes them, as it also excludes geographical definitions of Amazon, Everest, Nile, and McKinley. Whether you, dear reader, choose to be as forgiving of this exclusion is up to you. Where I find deficiency is in a dictionary that is spotty in its handling of such terms.

full nelson: In some cases, this shows up under nelson. I'm willing to accept this. But if neither nelson nor full nelson has a keyword, it's a miss.

habanero: I'm looking for reference to the chili pepper. I've found multiple dictionaries with habanera (a dance), but that's not what I'm after, so for now I've marked them all as misses.

nappy: I'm looking for a definition that specifically pertains to hair (kinky). Other contexts, while numerous, are considered misses, for my purposes.

ninjutsu: I'm willing to accept ninjitsu.

Scientology: Whether you view this as the best religion, a legitimate religion, or a ridiculous joke, I think reasonable people can agree that it's a widespread enough phenomenon that inclusion in a modern dictionary is a reasonable expectation.

zorilla: I'm willing to accept zoril.

One more quick note: Thanks to my darling Beth who suggested bumf, Gadzooks, and goombah.


  1. I notice habanero has all misses, and am wondering whether you've considered alternate spelling, jabanero. If not, please check it out - as the root is Spanish, this may account for the omission as you've recorded it.

    As my only dictionary (a poor one, compared to the ones in your collection, I'm sure) does not have either spelling listed, I'm unable to verify the correct English spelling.

    - SL

  2. Yep. Considered it. Not sure whether I've been consistent about checking the "j" spelling in all cases, but I am sure that I've checked it in at least a few dictionaries. All misses, of course, otherwise I would have reported it.

    One other interesting result: As I was checking for aardwolf, I happened to notice that one of these dictionaries doesn't even have an entry for aardvark! Can you believe that?

  3. By the way...I marked number 7 as a miss, even though it does have an entry for nelson. Here's the problem: The definition for nelson in that dictionary actually defines half nelson. If you think that's acceptable, then by all means, consider dictionary #7 to have hit the 10 hit threshold. Still a lousy count, but the best mass market paperback result yet.