Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Use 'em but don't love 'em

A dictionary’s most important quality? It must be accessible. If the explanation’s more than an arm’s-length away the word isn’t checked. Chambers is housed downstairs in the living room, Penguin here on a shelf over the scanner. Collins-Robert lies on the same shelf above the monitor.

Both are heavy to lift down and I’d prefer them to hover on either side of my head at temple height.

Foreign dictionaries need replacing. That’s the fourth or fifth Collins-Robert in two decades. The paperback French-French Dictionnaire Universel cost €2 off a market stall. It claims 40,000 definitions which I doubt but it’s mainly for emergencies such as discussing swimming pool filtration systems.

Dictionaries are systems rather than books and typography plays a vital role. The defined word in Penguin appears in an extra-bold sans serif face with the definition in a serif face, possibly Times New Roman; similarly with Collins-Robert. But the presentation differs radically. A long entry in the former (eg, “be”) occupies only half a column, in the latter “etre” covers a page. Penguin is initially clearer but C-R gathers useful related information into a single area.

Never become sentimentally attached to a dictionary. None is perfect and the faults can be infuriating. To be told (by C-R) that raki is raki is only a tiny step forward. On the other hand being laconic is a virtue. Penguin says an “erk” is a person holding the lowest rank in the air force (short for aircraftsman). As an ex-erk I didn’t know that.

3 comments:

Zhoen said...

I find this site rather more useful than quirky translation engines.

http://wordreference.com/

Sir Hugh said...

For Zhoen:

I tried the word "relucent" on your "wordreference" site. This word features in the blog name of a regular contributor to Works Well. "Wordreference" failed. My Chambers succeeded.

marja-leena said...

Though I have many dictionaries as well, I'm using online dictionaries more and more, especially if I'm at the computer anyway. They vary in quality...