language peevishness

Words and Obsession

If you are at all obsessive, I’m sure you know well the gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction that arises when something just isn’t right. For me, that something is often a problem of knowledge: something I don’t know, something I can’t figure out, or (worst of all) something I’ve forgotten. It can strike without warning, a whim of iron that crowds out all other thought until it is satisifed.

Over time, one develops a pattern of strategies for dealing with the most common of these eventualities. Chief among my precautions, I try to make sure that I’m never more than arm’s length from a dictionary. Even for words I know, I am often seized by the need to verify shades of connotation.

Ah, dictionaries. Having the right edition at hand is indispensable.

I have little good to say about the standard American dictionaries. The glib banalities of Merriam-Webster and American Heritage only reinforce the apathy of most students toward the treasure-house of language. We shall speak of them no more.

More pleasingly, consider the OED. The full, twenty-volume edition is, alas, horrifically expensive and unwieldy. The single-volume, photo-reduced, Compact OED is too crabbed and inacessible to be a pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, you need a copy of the OED, but find yourself a copy of the older, two-volume Compact with only four pages-per-page. Despite its necessity, the OED is not for quick reference; its dark vortex will suck you into the fifty near-variants of a single word, leading to an afternoon of scholarly enjoyment that is incompatible with actually finishing whatever writing task you were previously attempting to complete.

Allow me to commend to you the best single-volume English dictionary for ready reference: the Chambers, which is an unmitigated pleasure. It is accessible, engaging, and playful without sacrificing the richness of linguistic history. Consider, for example, the entry for weasel words:

weasel words plural noun words used to deliberately make statements evasive or misleading.

Etymology: Early 20c: such words suck the meaning out of neighbouring words in the way a weasel sucks the contents out of an egg, leaving the shell empty.

One skates stutteringly through the Chambers, tripping on something interesting a dozen times on your way to your goal, building a ramified stack of serendipitous discoveries to trace down.

A final, minatory note: avoid the disappointments of the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary and the Pocket Chambers. The Chambers 21st Century is sadly vitiated, stripped of the most pleasing archaisms and much of its character. The Pocket Chambers is simply pointless, as it chooses to omit any word for which you might actually need a definition.

2 replies on “Words and Obsession”

I agree about the OED, though once I discovered the CD-ROM (and now online, thanks to a university connection), there was no going back. Don’t get me wrong–I am fiercely opposed to books on the screen, and lament the disappearance of shelf-stuffed second-hand stores, full of paper oddities. But the OED… you need the CD: the full text in readable format, with easy cross-referencing and best of all a powerful search-engine. It’s also pretty cheap, and easy to transport.

The AHD I don’t like at all; it does have a nice IE root appendix, which I bought separately. I also recommend the Cassell’s two-volume French-English dictionary, which even has the French for ‘energumen’. (It’s ‘energumene’, rather boringly.)

I haven’t been able to bring myself to fork over the three hundred bucks for the CD-ROM edition, but I’m going to break down eventually. I use Linux rather than Windows, and the bloody thing is Windows-only with all sorts of copy protection stupidities.

For the moment, happily, I too have university access to the OED online. It is extortionate should one wish to purchase individual access; the cost for a year is the same as purchasing the CD-ROM outright.

Peevingly, the web interface has something like six separate frames, so it’s effectively impossible to access from the 240×320 screen of my PDA phone. That’s my personal killer app: when I can read the OED while standing in line at the supermarket, I’ll know this is the twenty-first century.