As dictionary readers go, I'm a moderate. While I admire Ammon Shea for reading all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, I've never been tempted to duplicate such a feat. On the other hand, I do own a good-size collection of dictionaries—I have a soft spot for specialized volumes such as The Surfin'ary, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, and The Cowboy Dictionary—and I frequently bookmark interesting online lexicons such as a glossary of furniture terms and the NetLingo list of acronyms and texting shorthand. (I use the Delicious bookmarking service; if you're interested in what interests me, look me up at Wordworker.) I also have German, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Hawaiian, and Swahili dictionaries.
I own a smaller but well-thumbed set of thesauri, too. A couple of editions of Roget's, of course, as well as the very helpful Synonym Finder and the Descriptionary, which is organized thematically like a thesaurus but gives definitions like a dictionary.
The newest volume in my bookcase is a hybrid: a dictionasaurus, you might say. At 1,524 pages, the just-published Oxford American Dictionary & Thesaurus (Second Edition) isn't exactly compact, but it's certainly less cumbersome and easier to navigate than two separate references.
(Full disclosure: Oxford University Press sent me a free copy of the Dictionary & Thesaurus along with a packet of press material. Naturally, OUP was hoping for a review, or at least a mention, but I was not pressured in any way.)
The D&T has several unusual or unique features. Here are the ones I like most:
- Synonyms and antonyms appear in a box below the entry. Very convenient.
- A list of phrases (with definitions) accompanies some words. For example, the entry for good is followed by a list, with definitions, that includes as good as, the Good Book, and deliver the goods.
- Some entries include a "word toolkit" that differentiates among shades of meaning. For example: use minor with injury, leagues, offense, miracle, surgery, or setback; use slight with breeze, movement, advantage, exaggeration, angle, possibility. This feature could be especially helpful for people who are learning English.
- Words requiring greater explanation are followed by usage notes. For example, a box accompanying the entry for precise explains when accurate is the preferred usage.
- Yet another type of explanatory box, "Choose the Right Word," distinguishes between words that are similar in meaning but have distinctly different definitions. For example, eject, dismiss, evict, expel, and oust are not interchangeable.
- "Word Links" suggest words that are related in meaning but not spelling. If you're looking up enclose and trying to remember the word for "fear of enclosed places," the Word Link will refresh your memory (claustrophobia).
- In the center of the D&T is a "Language Guide" with concise information about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as one of my favorite features: the Wordfinder, which includes thematic lists (birds, animals, art, geography, etc.) and lists of archaic and literary words.
Naturally, even a 1,524-page reference can't have everything. Here's what I miss in the D&T (but find in other dictionaries):
- A thumb index. In my collection, only the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Edition) (AHD) is thumb-indexed. It's a seemingly trivial feature, but I'm very grateful for it.
- Illustrations. Again, only AHD has them (and in color!).
- Citations from literature. You'll have to splurge on an unabridged dictionary such as the OED or Webster's Third New International to get them.
- A concurrent pronunciation guide. American Heritage and the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary have phonetic-alphabet guides on every page or pair of pages. The D&T uses a simplified respelling system instead of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and if you need to check it, you'll have to flip back to page xii.
- Detailed etymologies. Some entries, such as the one for emulsion, say merely "Origin: Latin." If you want to go deeper than that, you'll need a back-up reference (or try the Online Etymology Dictionary).
I'm not going to replace all my other dictionaries and thesauri with the D&T—but fortunately, I don't have to. If, on the other hand, you're strapped for space (say, in a dorm room or studio apartment) and need a single-volume reference with good usage guides, the D&T is convenient and comprehensive enough for general use. And at less than $30, it's an excellent value.