American English

Robert Ilson

  • Oxford American Dictionary
    Oxford, 816 pp, £9.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 502795 7
  • Longman New Generation Dictionary
    Longman, 798 pp, £3.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 582 55626 0
  • Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary
    Harper and Row, 890 pp, £4.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 06 180254 9

‘Robert Burchfield, Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, made a bid to unite two nations divided by a common language by unveiling the Oxford American Dictionary, which includes such words as gridlock (“urban traffic jam”). ’ So proclaimed the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. British and American English do indeed differ in all sorts of ways, as the following list of equivalent pairs will remind any doubters: lift/elevator, push-chair/stroller, bonnet/hood, boot/trunk, windscreen/windshield. Has Mr Burchfield (who is not the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, but of Supplements to it) succeeded in uniting the two nations, which, I take it, means making it easier for us to communicate with each other? A bit of ‘lexicographic archaeology’ will help in finding an answer.

The 1980 Oxford American Dictionary (hereinafter OAD) is based on a British dictionary, the 1979 Oxford Paperback Dictionary (OPD for short). As might be expected, it turns out that all the American words in the pairs above are in OAD and all the British words are in OPD. But as might not have been expected, though all the American words except stroller are in the OPD, none of their British equivalents is in the OAD. Which is not to say that OAD is bereft of Briticisms. But it is clear that a policy decision has been taken virtually to purge OAD of any trace of its British origins. And the result, for its users on both sides of the Atlantic, is distressing. Americans who come across a characteristically British expression (as when glued to their television screens for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) will not find it in OAD. People in this country who may be aware that American motor-car terminology, say, is different from their own will have no way of knowing where in OAD the equivalent motoring terms are to be found. Americans will not be able to use OAD to decode from British, nor will people in Britain be able to use it to encode into American. In short, to use Randolph Quirk’s felicitous distinction, the powers that be at OUP have decided that their new dictionary should be a dictionary of American English, not an American dictionary of English.

Why? Speculation may do more harm than good, but one cannot but remember (if one is a lexicographer) the views that Mr Burchfield expressed in his Preface to the 1979 reprinting of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, which he praised for ‘its sturdy Englishness – American vocabulary, for example, is almost all deliberately excluded.’ Those are hardly the words of a uniter of ‘two nations divided by a common language’: the doctrine implied is surely that British and American English should be kept separate in a kind of linguistic apartheid. It is important to emphasise that OUP has not done that in its British dictionaries: OPD has all but one of the Americanisms I’ve been discussing, and the larger 1976 Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) has them all – even stroller – correctly labelled.

And yet OAD bears some curious traces of its British origins. For OAD as for OPD, the robin is ‘a small brown red-breasted bird’, though the 1973 US Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary (NCD) is careful to distinguish robin la, ‘a small European thrush’, from robin 2, ‘a large No. American thrush’. And turning from the natural to the social world, OAD preserves OPD’s definition of well-spoken as ‘speaking in a polite and correct way’, by contrast with Merriam-Webster’s ‘speaking well, fitly or courteously’. OPD’s definition may be good enough for Britain, where to be ‘well-spoken’ is above all to ‘speak proper’. But it is not good enough for American English, whose idea of being ‘well-spoken’ gives more weight to what you say than to how you say it. These definitional inadequacies in OAD are all the more striking since COD has got them right for both America and Britain – and for well-spoken has the marvellous definition ‘ready or refined in speech’. Of course, such slip-ups are likely to occur when a British dictionary is Americanised – or an American dictionary Anglicised. But they do make one look carefully at OAD in its role as a dictionary of American English. How does OAD fare when it comes to newer, slangier or just non-New York Americanisms?

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