Browsing in a handy little word store

A new guide from Oxford University Press helps occasional writers build their vocabularies.

Matthew Mead/AP
Roast turkey is prepared in Concord, N.H.

At this time of year the clever domestic engineer may be starting to think about having a holiday turkey, and then about what to do with the leftovers – sandwiches, casseroles ... Anyone for turkey soup?

The great bird that keeps on feeding us is the metaphor that comes to mind as I read Erin Brenner’s recent “Tip of the Week” column at Copyediting.com. She describes the Oxford English Corpus, a body of 2.5 billion (yes, with a “b”) words that “feed” both the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries Online.

“Lexicographers are continuously working on the corpus, feeding us new words and updates each quarter, thanks to the wonders of digital publishing,” Ms. Brenner writes. “But what else can you do with such a massive collection of words? Publish more books, of course!”

One of the turkey sandwiches, er, books, from this vast corpus is Martin Manser’s “1001 Words You Need to Know and Use: An A-Z of Effective Vocabulary.”

Part of an Oxford University Press series focused on language and writing basics, “1001 Words” has a target audience: occasional writers cranking out essays, letters of application, reports, or business correspondence. 

To introduce a new metaphor: Paging through this book is like browsing in a word store – not a “big box” store, but more like a convenient corner store, maybe even a bodega, that doesn’t have a vast selection but does have just what’s needed (that specialty ingredient for the recipe you want to try tonight, perhaps).

“1001 Words” is as compact and manageable as the corpus it comes from is not; 166 pages (albeit in smallish type that gets a lot onto the page) in a format that slips easily into any student’s or young professional’s bag. 

The main entries are listed alphabetically, as in a dictionary. But in the back there’s a subject index that groups just the bare words into broad categories referring to the contexts in which they are likely to be useful: application letters, reports, essays. If you’re writing a “report” for your boss, for instance, you can go to the “reports” section and just browse. You could do the same thing with a regular dictionary, but with less focused results.

Many readers will find the book most helpful for its usage notes, detailing shades of difference: “Significant but not important can mean ‘great in degree.’ ” For another example: Basic refers to a “necessary minimum,” whereas something fundamental to something else is “essential to it.”

One last thing: American readers should be aware that “1001 Words” follows British usage and spelling. This is mostly no big deal. But I did chuckle at a reference to “bespoke” computer software. Sorry, I can’t see bespoke without getting a mental image of a bolt of a chalk-striped fabric draped over a tailor’s shoulder. In American usage, we would say “custom” software.

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