WORD reference books worth their salt are long-term investments. They hardly reveal all their merits or failings at a glance. They are tools. You have to work with them awhile to discover their usefulness. Size is an important measure: how many thousand definitions they contain.
Probably a 20-volume dictionary today would be best on computer disk, but there are some massive single-volume affairs available.
One impressive new dictionary definitely warrants its 2-1/2-inch slot on the bookshelf. Containing more than 350,000 entries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Third Edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 2,140 pp., $39.95) is clear but not too laconic. It boasts, apart from helpful usage notes and quotes, two features that are particular assets: a large number of pictures and separately boxed paragraphs on synonyms and word histories that are often - given the responsible atmosphere of this
book - entertaining. The synonym entries discuss shades of difference between words of similar meaning, though for mere comprehensiveness in this area you'd still need a thesaurus or synonym dictionary.
Two other aspects of dictionary compilation are important. One is the attention given to "new words," in particular to their contextual origins and sensitive usage. Under this banner, slang and "vulgar" words find their place in modern dictionaries, no less than computerese. "The American Heritage Dictionary" also reports on usage problems, like "snuck" instead of the more proper, but less popular, "sneaked."
Another role of dictionaries is entertainment (or to widen the application of a "new" word usually reserved for TV shows, "infotainment.") Some compilers of reference works are clearly recognizing that they are, apart from being useful, also in the business of giving pleasure. Even the dignified "American Heritage" is not above announcing proudly that it is being used as a research source for questions on the TV program "Jeopardy!"
The surprising amount of space now allocated in bookstores under "Reference" surely indicates an increase in the popularity of these books. Dictionaries, thesauri, books of quotations, pronunciation, and spelling, not to mention encyclopedias, don't merely satisfy a thirst for correct knowledge, they can also offer various kinds of delight.
Not that there was a dearth of amusement in some such books in the past. Fowler's "Modern English Usage" and Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" (both still in print and periodically revised), as well as such freakier, somewhat temporary manifestations of the genre as "The Dictionary of Misinformation" by Tom Burnham (out of print), or Eric Partridge's dictionaries of slang and catch phrases, have perennially entertaining aspects for anyone intrigued by words and usages.
Among new contenders, the Tuttle Dictionary of New Words Since 1960 (Charles E. Tuttle, $16.95) certainly is entertaining. Its compiler, Jonathon Green, introduces himself as someone who makes dictionaries more for enjoyment than as a duty. Originally a British publication, it has a certain UK bias that American readers may find irrelevant or delightful or both. Here, for example, can be found definitions of "panda-crossing" (coined in 1962) and "car-boot sale" (1980), not necessarily survival terms in a n average American's daily life. On the other hand, American neologisms, which generally cross the Atlantic more persuasively than vice versa, such as "hip-hop" (1985), "preppie" (1970), or "ball park (figure)" (1962), also abound.
As a point of comparison between the "Tuttle Dictionary" and another book of similar type, the buyer might take a look at "The Oxford Dictionary of New Words" (1991, scheduled for paperback publication in the spring). This takes a more detailed look at words that have become popular over the last 10 years. Discussions rather than definitions are applied to each word, and the combination of informativeness and entertainment runs high.
Take "couch potato." While Tuttle gives it a four-word definition and brief usage-quote, "The Oxford Dictionary of New Words" launches, with comprehensive solemnity, into this widely applicable phrase, tracing its etymology, if that is not too pompous a word, back to a pun on "boob tubers."
Couch potatoes brings one to Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus in Dictionary Form, edited by Barbara Ann Kipper (Dell, 836 pp., $18). This chunky volume claims to have broken new ground for thesauri. Instead of a standard word index in the back, it has a "Concept Index." This means it has basically turned the traditional Roget back to front, arranging the main body of the work alphabetically instead of by ideas. It seems to work. But only time will tell if the absence of a thorough word index in the back as
well would not have been a more helpful aid to quick use. Speed of access matters.
Laurence Hughes, a spokesman for Dell Publishing, claims this volume updates the traditional thesaurus. Well, maybe. Here again, the emphasis is on new words - the only thesaurus to list "hundreds of recently coined and common Americanisms." But I can't find "couch potato" anywhere. Yet it is in the "American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language" as well as the BBC English Dictionary: A Dictionary for the World (HarperCollins, 1,374 pp.).
It's true I haven't managed to find it either in the other thesaurus recently released, The Oxford Thesaurus, American Edition (Oxford University Press, 1,005 pp., $19.95), even under "vegetate." It makes one wonder what motivates word choice. The line between recording and promoting a word can be thin. Compilers have to exercise responsibility, and that word is an imponderable. Perhaps for the thesaurus makers, distaste for the concept is understandable. Couch potatoes watch TV; they don't read thesauri .
Not that words are for readers alone. The interesting thing about the "BBC English Dictionary" is that it is designed for listeners - for the worldwide audience of the British Broadcasting Company's "World Service." This popular radio program includes English teaching, and this comprehensive - but not too hefty - dictionary is well set out and takes the international character of its market into account.
By far my favorite book in the current batch is not strictly a word reference book. But I'd put it on the same shelf. It is The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur (Oxford University Press, 1,184 pp., $45). The range of topics discussed is wide and continually surprising. Turn to any page and you will be both taught and entertained. You might find yourself delving into a discussion of the acute accent, Anthony Burgess, South Africanisms, the problem of the "intrusive R," mala propisms, pangrams, polysemy, spelling reform, Scottish jokes, Herman Melville, mumbo-jumbo - or the compiling of dictionaries. Oh, and look under "neologism" and what's the first example? Right - "couch potato."