Eric Korn

  • Chambers Universal Learners’ Dictionary
    Chambers, 908 pp, £5.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 550 10632 4
  • Le Mot Juste
    Kogan Page/Papermac, 176 pp, £5.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 85038 294 7

In 1598 John Florio called his dictionary A World of Words, and the joy of a new dictionary is the traveller’s joy, the joy of entering a new world, or at least a new state in some loose federal union, recognisably part of the same nation, but with its own eccentricities and prejudices, more rigid or more lax in licensing laws or taboos, more or less committed to conservation.

Chambers Universal Learners’ Dictionary has rather less joie de vivre or élan (both in Le Mot Juste) or pizazz (not found) than one might expect from a lexicon committed to the colloquial. Breadth is sacrificed to clarity, etymology is discarded as a luxury, and each word has its syntactic and social roles explicated, labelled and, above all, exemplified: ‘non-stick adj (of a pan etc) treated ... so that food will not stick to it: a non-stick frying-pan; Is this frying-pan non-stick?’ Chambers’s universe is unmysterious, unambiguous, a trifle old-fashioned: a world where the Sixties have come and gone, taking their specialised meanings (‘bust’, ‘speed’, ‘acid’) with them, leaving only porn and miniskirt behind, a world where London rocks on like an empty hammock in a gale, relentlessly swinging: ‘(inf) fashionable and exciting; the swinging city of London’.

There are no less than 54,000 of these exemplary phrases, and, because they have been chosen to demonstrate unambiguously the word’s syntactic function, they are all a trifle dull. Take jazz, for instance. (You cannot take punk or funk or two-tone or ska or bop or disco – except as an abbreviation for discotheque.) ‘He plays jazz as a hobby. She prefers jazz to classical music. A jazz musician.’ The purpose of these semantically vapid examples, I take it, is to avoid the elaborate system of symbols used by Chambers’s predecessor and chief rival, Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, published in 1978, which seeks a similar non-English or non-adult audience, and is similarly concerned with defining usage, with extending the range of dictionary speech to include various levels of informal, slang, colloquial and taboo, and similarly buttresses each definition with examples.

Where, in labelling jazz up, Chambers has the more or less familiar ‘vi sep inf’, Longman’s has ‘v adv T1 Wv5’, where T1 tells us that we have a transitive verb that must be followed by an ordinary noun as object (and not a gerund or infinitive), and Wv5 indicates that the participle jazzed up may be used adjectivally. This information is not provided to Chambers-users, although they, on the other hand, are specifically informed by sep that they may properly say ‘Those barbarians have jazzed Palestrina up’ as well as ‘Those barbarians have jazzed up Palestrina.’

The comparison with the Longman dictionary is inescapable, and it seems to me that the first in the field is superior in every way (and at £4.75 even better value), unless the user is quite irrationally daunted by the need to spend an hour with the preface before he can use the dictionary effectively. Longman’s has a wider choice of words, its phonetic system is clearer (and it gives both English and US pronunciations for every word), it shows tone patterns, it is better on the differences between the major dialects of English, it is better on technology (Chambers omits ‘bit’ and ‘microwave’ and has a confusing definition of isotope), its examples are racier, and it has pictures and footnotes on usage (‘hopefully’, ‘and nor’) when the standard form of entry is insufficient.

Consider again the jazz entry. Longman’s has the entirely adequate ‘any of several types of music originated by Black Americans, usu. with a strong beat and some free playing by each musician in the band’, while Chambers offers the jejune ‘popular music of American Negro origin’. Come to think of it, Chambers doesn’t offer ‘jejune’ either, nor – to go no further afield – ‘jello’, ‘Jehovah’, ‘jerk off’ or ‘je ne sais quoi’, four options, all in Longman’s, which would seem to cover most human activity.

You observe also the different treatment of racial matters: Longman’s labels negro ‘tech or not polite’ for Black, which is ‘no longer derog’; Chambers calls the two words respectively ‘sometimes offensive’ and ‘often offensive, currently acceptable in USA, Africa etc’, which is unhelpful.

The more traditionally banned words, which Longman’s calls taboo and Chambers, more downrightly, vulgar, are impressively exhibited. However, Chambers does not concede the transitive use of piss off, and describes bugger, remarkably, as a British term of abuse and an American term of affection, without indicating that it has or ever had any precise denotation. Sound on the basic female tetragrammaton, it excludes many current synonyms. There are knockers and knickers, but no ‘knackers’ in either sense. There is no ‘troilism’, no sexual ‘swinger’ or ‘swapper’, and a vibrator is simply something which vibrates – which is perhaps just as well, since Chambers provides no verb to tell you what to do with it. Surely the Universal Learner might reasonably want to read sexual small ads and the less obscure graffiti.

Chambers, then, is half-bold with indecency, cautious with ethnicity (it is, apparently, the first dictionary to point out, correctly, that ‘Mohammedan’ is offensive to many Muslims; it has niggers and yids but no ‘wogs’, also overlooks Scientology and Baha’i): but it is utterly timorous about the matter of copyright, and has indeed created a new class of unprintables. On the verso of the title-page, in the corner normally reserved for the ISBN, there is an obsequious assurance that they have made every effort to indicate what words are copyright, and that the inclusion of a word in a dictionary is in no way an attempt to change its status. (Samuel Johnson would have had a word for this dereliction of the lexicographer’s duty: the word is ‘pusillanimous’.) So there are Biro™ and Landrover™ and Hoover™ and Perspex™ and even Realtor™. But if, pausing for refreshment, you should look for what Longman calls ‘a popular nonalcoholic dark-coloured BUBBLY drink of American origin’, you will look in vain between the cobwebs and cocaine where is its appropriate niche. (I meant appropriate alphabetically.) So Coca-Cola is a no-no. As, indeed, is ‘no-no’, likewise ‘nene’, the Hawaiian goose, and nu, nu (though a single nu makes it into Le Mot Juste, in the Other Languages section, between nosh and nudnik) and, most seriously, ‘nana’, which is present neither as ‘inf derog idiot’ nor as ‘usually “nan” ’ – the South of England’s normal colloquial word for ‘granny’. But those old-fashioned folks in Chamberland may still have a Nanny (‘with cap’, they add delightfully). Yet they do know about au pairs: ‘They have a new au pair every month.’ Not surprising, when they make her wear a cap and haven’t heard of lib and won’t let her own a tranny or drink that cobwebby cocainy stuff.

Le Mot Juste is sprightly and unassuming and easy to mock, especially if one was born with a polyglot tag in one’s mouth. Macmillan’s publicity seems to suggest that this ‘Dictionary of Foreign and Classical Words and Phrases’ is most useful for ploying at parties, but it also serves the more legitimate activity of elucidating a not overly pretentious film review. Words are listed by language, classical words in one section, on the assumption that you can tell Italian from Spanish but not Greek from Latin. Translations are sometimes imaginative – ‘you win some, you lose some’ for comme ci, comme ça.

A serviceable work, but one does not willingly ascend in a balloon that is 99 per cent air-tight, or praise a dictionary for being 99 per cent correct; so one should point out that ‘Dalai Lama’ is not Mongolian (it comes from the Tibetan blama, with the b silent, of course), that ‘troika’ has the important sense of triumvirate, that ‘Oxygian’ should be ‘Ogygian’, that ‘toreador’ and ‘bon vivant’ are not used in their languages of origin, and that although Herodotus does say that Pheidippides (or Philippides) ran 150 miles to solicit Spartan help at the battle of Marathon, the relevant statistic is the 26 miles and 487 yards he is supposed to have run back to Athens to announce victory.