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Dictionaries – when one is not enough

August 12, 2011

When looking up the use of a word recently it was suggested I use a dictionary by Funk & Wagnalls, because, I was told, this dictionary is recognised on both sides of the Atlantic1. Is it? I had never heard of it, and as a non-fiction, business and specialist writer I use dictionaries a lot. This ignorance on my part could simply be a personal failing, but it made me think about dictionaries in general.

Hard or soft?

I always ask delegates on a business-writing course whether or not they have a dictionary on their desk. A nice big, fat dictionary. Of course, the majority do not, and a number have pocket dictionaries. Most rely on Internet dictionaries (such as Oxford Dictionaries Online), or, most commonly, MS Word’s inbuilt spell-checking dictionary. Dictionaries are essential tools for writers, and I include anyone who writes at work; in the information economy, that is nearly all of us.

How many of us can use a dictionary? The easy answer is we all can. We simply look up the word in alphabetical order and check the meaning, or spelling. And then we discover there is more than one meaning, or an unexpected spelling. If, by chance, we have a second dictionary, we might look it up again to sometimes discover the spelling differs, or the usage is slightly different (and we went to the dictionary expecting an ‘exact’ answer).

How many?

So, now what? Generally, I turn to a third dictionary and when two out of three agree, I go with the majority view. However, if all three of my dictionaries are US, then I might get a different result from mixing a US, a UK and another English-speaking dictionary, such as an Australian dictionary. And so on.

So do I rely on Funk & Wagnalls? Should I buy that dictionary and add it to my collection? As a writer I need all the tools I can get.  Perhaps a visit to Amazon is in order.

[1] Wikipedia tells us that Funk & Wagnalls first published The Standard Dictionary of the English Language in 1894, and an encyclopaedia in 1912. This is based upon Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes it is a ‘family of English-language dictionaries noted for their emphasis on ease of use and current usage.’

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 15:49

    It’s good to know that there are others out there with a dictionary habit. I can’t resist a book with ‘dictionary’ in the title or subtitle. Means I keep having to go back to Ikea for an extra bookcase.

  2. penman permalink
    August 12, 2011 17:45

    I have the same problem. I somehow justify dictionaries as a legitimate way of spending money: they are investments, after all. And oddly interesting to read. Finding a typo in a dictionary (and I have) is equivalent to winning a school prize – smugly satisfying at the time and a temporary fillip for the ego, but ultimately of interest to no-one but yourself.

  3. saiinfo permalink
    December 31, 2011 09:45

    I just found your blog and found it very informative and interesting. Keep it up!

    Business Dictionary

  4. Mike Taylor permalink
    April 9, 2012 11:18

    Funk & Wagnalls (a collaboration between Mr Funk and Mr Wagnalls, so no apostrophe) first drifted into my consciousness thanks to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (apostrophe because the second party was Dick Martin) around 1968 thanks to BBC2. One of their punch lines was “go look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls” which sounded conveniently rude, but wasn’t.

  5. Miss Alexandrina permalink
    January 26, 2013 14:20

    I have to admit that I generally only use one dictionary: the Oxford Concise. But, I do use the Word function when necessary. I think it’s probably a slightly different case for me, since I’m more of a fiction writer and I don’t have need of the US or Australian dictionaries.

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