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A Lost Art (One More on Dictionaries)

23 February 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


In addition to the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, Excessively Large Edition, I have the comparably tiny, Pocket Oxford Dictionary, which was written by the incomparable Fowler brothers, authors of the still-selling-a-century-later Modern English Usage and The King’s English. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up a word in this little book and been delighted by the the definition. Alright. Even I know how weird that sounds, but just listen to this nugget, the beginning of the definition of “Time”:


Noun. The successive states of the universe regarded as a whole whose every part or moment is before or after every other & position in which is defined in answer to the question, ‘when?’ ….

That, apart from being very slightly convoluted while at the same time slightly compressed to fit in such a short dictionary, is delightful. (And, you might benefit, as I did, by mentally adding the word “whose” before the word “position”.)

The Fowlers wrote this dictionary, and it feels written, not compiled. It is possibly one of the last dictionaries to have just a couple authors instead of an editor and a legion of writers. The old dictionaries that are still read today even though their definitions may be obsolete are the ones that have the quality of great (or at least entertaining) writing (you can still enjoy Samuel Johnson’s 300 year-old dictionary for this reason). In the Pocket Oxford dictionary, the definitions feel human and very much like something spoken in English (albeit by very smart Englishmen) rather than dryly recorded in a textbook.

Get the Fowler’s The King’s English new on Amazon or choose from several used copies for a buck each at AbeBooks (an online marketplace for real-world used bookstores). Tough choice, huh?