The Right Word

For the same absurd reason someone might want to buy a print dictionary in an era defined by the Internet’s wisdom and impatience, I set out to review and form a strong opinion on the major print dictionaries. It seems pointless, even picayune, to care about a massive book of definitions, spellings, occasional etymologies and usage notes, all of which can be found far faster online: Merriam-Webster, MacMillan, Cambridge, Collins all have free online dictionaries, and even Google will give you a brief definition, syllabification, and etymology of any word you enter, sometimes even without addition definition to the query. So why bother to use a physical dictionary, let alone consider reviewing them? I’d like to joke that I don’t know, but if I don’t know, I at least have an idea why: I come across all sorts of funky, silly, and interesting entries in a real dictionary. Google, and every online source gives you only exactly what you want. A book, on the other hand, flipped even to exactly the right page, gives you plenty more to look at. And that’s ignoring the feel of authority and research dedicated to a print publication. (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, for example, is a far cry from the professional matte pages of its printed text with its airy presentation and crap advertised at the side of each page.) Plus I wish to become a snob of English writing, and doing so without an adequate and researched opinion on print dictionaries is unforgivable.

The American dictionary began with Noah Webster, the namesake of many modern dictionaries and the reason we Americans spell color, traveled, and estrogen without those pesky extra letters. He was a bit of a weirdo, injecting Biblical definitions wherever he could in his dictionaries and treating language with a bit of an Orwellian fixation. He, and the Merriam brothers after his death, also waged a serious linguistic war against Joseph Worcester, his rival in the dictionary-writing business. This war cemented Webster’s dictionary under the Merriam brothers’ publishing house, as the definitive American dictionary. A name that once commanded respect—and likely still does—Webster now is in the public domain, meaning any schmuck can write a dictionary and tack Webster on its cover in big, bold, authoritative letters.

But Noah Webster is dead, publishing cheap, and the market diluted with more dictionaries than we need and not enough reliable sources discussing which dictionaries we should respect and which we should ignore.

Before I developed criteria to test each dictionary, I had to make a few stylistic and possibly contentious decisions. For one, I planned to buy whichever dictionary I chose as the winner, so I omitted the OED on account of it being both far too voluminous and costly. I also write in American English, so British English dictionaries were off the list. Finally, I decided that the most important features of a dictionary were the spelling, syllabification, and definition—everything else was extra (for usage I prefer the well-researched Garner’s Modern English Usage, which I also consulted also for usage-related criteria, and for etymology I prefer etymonline.com). The criteria were spelling (standard past and plural forms, such as burned over burnt and octopuses over octopi; and proper italicization of loanwords like rasion d’etre but not ad hoc), pronunciation (“vidl” for victual, “khank” for conch, that sort of thing), definitions (jealous, disinterested vs. uninterested, blogger for something modern), etymology (OK, from oll korrect; octopus, from Greek, not Latin; and lagniappe, uncertain origin through Spanish la ñapa), syllabification (more on that in a moment), formatting, (does the dictionary look nice?) and taboo (the words our parents refused to teach us but we learned anyway by third grade).

My criteria did lead to two issues: No major dictionary wants to italicize loanwords anymore, and syllabification is not as prescriptive as I thought. I had expected Latin words (e.g., exempli gratia, id est, et cetera, and so on) to remain unitalicized but others (e.g., coup de grâce, raison d’être, doppelgänger) to be italicized. Some dictionaries did italicize, but most did not. Garner himself writes of no rule for italicization other than that the commonly-used ones tend to lose italicization first—before losing diacritical marks or their foreign plurals. So much for that. Syllabification, on the other hand, is far more complex than I had assumed. While major dictionaries likely use the same system—Maximal Onset Principle—to syllabify words, the results are not always comparable. Cashier, for example, syllabifies as cash-ier according to Oxford’s books, no matter the definition, but only cash-ier according to Merriam-Webster if you intende the noun form. For the verb, to dismiss dishonorably, Merriam-Webster dictates ca-shier. English, according to the English, separates into Eng-lish, but according to the Americans, into En-glish. There are more, and they become easy to find once you get a feel for it. Fortunately, most of us don’t need to care about syllabifying words, and those who do already are likely aware of these differences.

This leaves, finally, only the dictionaries themselves. Of the ten dictionaries I found, I’m omitting detailed reviews for four on account of them being either middling or replaced by better or more modern editions. The omitted are Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2003, Webster’s New World Basic Dictionary of American English, American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, and Oxford Dictionary of English, Second Edition, Revised. The rest are as follows, from worst to best, or something like that:

American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, 2014
Houghton Mifflin has produced what I can call the only two truly bad dictionaries I found. The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) was so overstuffed with color photos and drawings seemingly dragged onto the page from a Google image search that I found it hard to keep my eye focused to the comparatively dull black words. This Dictionary and Thesaurus, available in numbers at Barnes & Noble, lacks etymologies, taboo terms, modern words, thumb or edge indexes, and entries in general. Instead of printing a good, simple dictionary, Houghton Mifflin feels the need to devote a third of each page to selected synonyms, rendering the entries they did include bland and unnecessarily brief. It makes me wonder if the publisher lacks words in their lexicon and needs to fill the void with other crap like synonyms and pictures. Like a shampoo that advertises itself as both shampoo and conditioner, a dictionary that advertises itself as both dictionary and thesaurus does neither well. You’re better off buying a real dictionary and a separate thesaurus from one of the better publishers.

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1999
This dictionary was easy to read. It had inconsistent italicization (coup de main but not coup de grâce, which begs the question why we are more unfamiliar with surprise attacks than surprise killings) and its thumb indexes were useless. After ten or so dictionaries, I can confidently and with great certainty proclaim that I hate thumb indexes. That said, Random House, in this edition, really takes the cake. The NO tab, for example, sends you not to the beginning of N or O, as you might expect. No (pun . . . well, forget it), the NO tab puts you between mung bean and Muscat, with a handful of pages to go before N begins. They’ve two whole letter ranges to index properly and they can’t even do that. And while I’m at it, so I don’t repeat myself too much (American dictionaries fetishize thumb indexes about as much as custom pronunciation guides), thumb indexes are a waste of time and space. They are, even ignoring Random House, designed not to be useful but to be aesthetically pleasing—roughly evenly distributed down the fore edge. This is true whether you grab Random House or Merriam-Webster (where the NO at least has the common courtesy to put you between O’odham and operativeness). When I turn to a thumb index, I assume the tab places me at the beginning of one of the listed letters. I thus index the word’s location in my head before I open the book. Since none of the dictionaries do this, though, I have to restart my indexing from scratch based on wherever the book decides to place me. It may be nitpicky, especially considering I like flipping through a dictionary, but I stand firm that thumb indexes are nonsensical and stupid.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, 1986
This dictionary gave me a chuckle—as much as a dry lexicon of the English language can give anyone a chuckle—because it felt that nigger was safe and all right to print but wouldn’t dare display fuck on any page I found. Now, I won’t say fuck has the same ethno-historical importance to our culture as the racial slur, but, hell, they even thought cunt was okay to print. I don’t know about you, but I think fuck is farm more important to the English lexicon than cunt, even if the latter showed up on street signs a few centuries back. Nonetheless, search as I might, I couldn’t find fuck, fucking, fuckhead, or fucked-up anywhere this dictionary. God forbid 2662 pages give me so much as a quick fuck. This dictionary was otherwise uninteresting.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition
This dictionary (unrelated to the other two Webster dictionaries on this list) was not notable, good or bad, and fits well as a representation of the middle of the pack—the dictionaries I did not include cluster around this one in the overall ranking. It lacks both thumb and edge indexes, and I can’t say much else, good or bad, about this dictionary. This is the preferred dictionary of the AP Stylebook.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition
This Merriam-Webster is the American standard, the lovechild of American spelling, used by giants like The New Yorker and Chicago Manual of Style. The layout is authoritative. Open this dictionary and behold how a dictionary ought to look: gentle cream pages dense with justified columns, bold sans-serif entries and clean serif descriptions. The few drawings remain stylistically consistent without overpowering the words, of which there are many. But, to be honest, despite the dictionaryness, it’s a maze to read. Many definitions don’t begin until three or four lines after their bolded entry, with thin brackets and varying symbols tucking etymologies and alternate forms, all of which looks close enough to the definition that the eye glazes over, wanders through the maze of text, and eventually finds the definition. On top of that, Merriam-Webster lists its definitions chronologically, from oldest to most recent, unlike other dictionaries, which list definitions from most to least frequently used.

Merriam-Webster also represents, from my understanding, a more descriptivist dictionary, compared to, say, the Oxford books. It includes octopi (an improper plural stemming from a false Latinization of the Greek origin), and it treats uninterested and disinterested as more or less interchangeable (not interested vs. unbiased, respectively, for those who care). Yet, just when I think it has made up its mind on the topic, the dictionary (mis)spells website as Web site, which is wrong by even prescriptivist standards—Garner calling the latter “a clunker,” and even The Chicago Manual of Style suggests the lowercase as the proper form. Add to this the chronological approach to definitions and a couple other seemingly prescriptive habits, and Merriam-Webster appears confused as to what it wants to be: hip and modern or old and authoritative.

This dictionary was almost the winner. The deciding factor? Thumb indexes.

New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition
The New Oxford has two weaknesses: the 2017 pages are thin and feel easy to tear, and the design does not match the authoritative dictionaryness of Merriam-Webster. The three-per-page columns use a larger left-aligned font (bonus for some) with more blank space that makes the dictionary feel breezy, which it is not. It’s bigger, physically, than Merriam-Webster, and the apparent breeziness does not translate at all into its contents. One of the most beautiful features, which I call upon all dictionaries to adopt, is the edge index—dark blue ink that tells me how many pages each letter occupies. I may not be as quick to find O as with thumb indexes, but if I’m looking for, say, obstreperous, I know exactly how thick the O section is and can estimate to where, exactly, I need to open the book. I’ve already turned to the exact page multiple times, something that may never happen with vile thumb indexes. Aside from that the definitions were clean and felt more thorough than Merriam-Webster’s. New Oxford is also the only dictionary in this list to not include octopi, which makes this usage snob all the happier (for the pure fun of it, I do dig octopodes—rhyming with Hercules—but the proper plural is octopuses).

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I was, thanks to the beautiful indexing and clean definitions, quite ready to purchase the New Oxford when I discovered that Merriam-Webster prints their latest dictionary without thumb indexes. I was torn, so I compiled a list of about ten terms and respective definitions, which I sent to two dictionary testers who also care about good writing. One scored far in favor of New Oxford, the other scored them at par. Since I slightly preferred New Oxford’s definitions, I thus settled on New Oxford. It’s a beautiful, heavy book worthy of its own lectern in a living room or atrium library—let’s be honest, a good dictionary, like Infinite Jest or Ulysses or Bottom’s Dream, is meant to show off your intellect and trigger idle conversation just as much as it’s meant to be opened now and then, possibly on accident.

For now this whale of a dictionary rests on my kitchen table, where I hoist it occasionally onto my laptop and flip for spelling, pronunciation, and good, clean definitions. I’m content with my newfound dictionary expertise, and for all those interested, I can safely recommend the New Oxford for its current price of $25.