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?

There is no better test than to take as our text half a paragraph chosen at random from Cyra McFadden’s 1976 masterpiece The Serial, that pure well of California English undefiled: in Marin County general hospital, Harvey ‘had observed a gurney rolling by with a hang glider who had hung too loose ... and a weary doctor chewing out the fifth woman that night who’d come in with “French-bread thumb”.’ I’ve italicised expressions that might prove troublesome: fortunately, ‘French-bread thumb’ is explained in the text as what happens at a party when you slice your thumb instead of the French bread. Of the italicised expressions OAD has only hang glider – which it says is a device rather than a person. But NCD has got gurney and chew out, while a more recent Merriam-Webster, the 1976 6, 000 Words, has hang glider and hang loose. Gurney in Western American English turns out to be ‘a wheeled cot or stretcher’, chew out ‘to bawl out: REPRIMAND’, and hang loose ‘to remain calm: relax’ – though hang glider is still defined, alas, as a contraption rather than a person. So OAD fails as a dictionary of American English.

But perhaps, despite its lack of Briticisms, it succeeds as an American dictionary of English – a general-purpose dictionary for English-speakers around the world? I fear it does not. A random search in it for various items that are in COD reveals OAD’s lack of the Teuton twins Weltschmerz and Weltanschauung and the musical pair aleatoric and serial. The good news is that OAD has the newer sense of environmentalist, ‘a person who seeks to protect or improve the environment’: the bad news is that it has omitted the older but still important sense given by COD as ‘one who considers that environment has primary influence on person’s or group’s development’. On the other hand, OAD’s type-face and lay-out make it a pleasure to read; separate senses of words are clearly numbered, definitions are easy to understand, and there are many usage notes giving a variety of information (in particular, warnings against the confusion of similar words such as credence and credibility). Overall, however, thumbs down. OAD is not really satisfactory as either a dictionary of American English or an American dictionary of English – nor, a fortiori, as a dictionary of English tout court.

The Longman New Generation Dictionary (LNGD, if I may) is an adaptation of the very successful Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) to suit the British child of about 11 to 16. It is thus an extremely interesting effort to transform a dictionary for the foreign learner into one for the native learner (i.e. the child). Some years ago such an attempt might have caused a good many eyebrows to rise. People used to think there was little in common between the way we come to know our first language and what happens when we tackle any other: the first process was called ‘language acquisition’, the second ‘language learning’. Recently attention has been focused on the similarities between these two processes, and indeed the term ‘language acquisition’ is now often applied to both.

A striking advantage which LNGD takes over from its foreign-learner origins is an interest in ‘upmarket’ as well as ‘downmarket’ labelling. Thus whereas OAD, say, like many other native-speaker dictionaries, is interested in labelling things at the informal end of the spectrum, LNGD is equally concerned to make its young readers aware that words like abeyance and abjure are markedly formal in effect. This is worth doing, though hard to do well: formality can do far more damage to speech and writing than informality can, and is a much more immediate problem for the sort of person who frequently consults dictionaries. Unfortunately, however, LNGD has chosen to call formal items ‘esp. written’ and informal ones ‘esp. spoken’. That is misleading: a word like telly, say, makes much the same informal effect in speech as in writing, for formality is not so much to do with the medium used as with the degree of intimacy between addresser and addressee. Part of a good written style is knowing when to appear to take your reader into your confidence.

Comparing LNGD and OAD illustrates another serious problem: just as it is hard to say how a children’s dictionary should differ from a foreigner’s dictionary, so it is not easy to say how a children’s dictionary should differ from an adult’s dictionary, especially when the children in question are old enough for secondary school. Consider, for example, the following: amine, amino acid, black hole, cytoplasm, free-fall, monetarism, oxide, sibling, tumulus. Of these nine terms OAD has seven and LNGD also has seven: neither has amine, LNGD hasn’t got monetarism, and OAD hasn’t got tumulus. So what? Of course it is remarkable for a dictionary that claims 40,000 entries (LNGD) to be able to slug it out toe to toe with a dictionary (OAD) that does not announce its self-census, but probably weighs in at upwards of 70,000. But is one to conclude from that remarkable achievement that LNGD is a remarkable children’s dictionary, or rather that if its selection of vocabulary is really what ll-to-16-year-olds need, then 11-to-16-year-olds do not need a ‘children’s dictionary’ at all, but should move up to an adult’s one?

So there is a problem of genre with LNGD as with OAD: just as we had to ask what sort of object an ‘American dictionary’ was, so we must ask what sort of object a ‘children’s dictionary’ is. It is hard to evaluate such books on their own terms, and they must ultimately stand or fall on their merits simply as dictionaries. We have already seen that in the inclusion of scientific terms, at least, LNGD can hold its own against OAD. What about the quality of its definitions?

Does LNGD show that an alien has acquired the new sense of an ‘extraterrestrial’? Is its definition of black hole sufficiently precise to make clear that such bodies are still hypothetical? Does its treatment of chemistry account for a phrase like ‘the chemistry [chemical properties] of blood’? Is its definition of fundamentalism broad enough to allow, not only the Christian kind, but the Islamic variety of which we have heard so much in Iran? Can one, according to LNGD, integrate not only ‘children’ but ‘schools’? Is surrealism not only an artistic movement but a condition of Kafkaesque strangeness? And can where mean ‘whereas’, as in ‘Where some people take pride in openness, others prefer reserve’? Here we have a variety of problems basic to the dictionary-maker’s craft: neologism, accuracy, transferred and figurative senses, the treatment of grammatically important words. Of these seven tests, LNGD passes only two: the one for chemistry and the one for where. That’s not so good – but what medium-sized dictionary can do better? Not OAD, which gets chemistry and fundamentalism right, but not the others. And even COD itself triumphs only three times: with alien, chemistry and integrate. So this particular investigation reveals more about the state of the art than the state of Longman.

But there are a few overall design features of LNGD that are by no means commonplace in this country. A ‘larger number of short entries rather than fewer long ones’ is space-consuming, but preserves alphabetical order and makes things easier to find: bedding, bedrock and bedroom come thus in LNGD, but in precisely the reverse order in COD. What LNGD loses in information-storage capacity, it gains in ease of information retrieval. Moreover, LNGD, unlike OAD or COD, has illustrations, which are of enormous value in clarifying notions such as halyard or trapezium. But given LNGD’s devotion to alphabetical order, one could only wish that all the items illustrated were also entered in the dictionary proper.

Not all LNGD’s design features are a success. It enters almost no capitalised combining forms: no Franco- or Sino- (which are in LDOCE and COD, though not in OAD). And for a dictionary so devoted to science, it is unfortunate that LNGD does not include such useful forms as medical -ectomy or chemical -ide (as in oxide): with -ectomy and the already entered tonsil, a child could figure out the meaning of tonsillectomy for himself. If a children’s dictionary is in any sense an introduction to language as well as to words, the absence of etymologies from LNGD is to be deplored – selected etymologies are a feature of American children’s dictionaries. The lack of information about pronunciation is also hard to excuse. Admittedly, the systems that dictionaries use to show pronunciation can be off-putting for a youngster. But an effective compromise was employed by that earlier Longman lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who said in the Preface to his Dictionary: ‘I have not wholly neglected the pronunciation, which I have directed, by printing an accent upon the acute or elevated syllable.’ Simply showing the stress pattern of an entry would have cleared up many confusions, showing children that there is a stress difference between the noun 'conduct and the verb con'duct, even though 'contact is unchanged whether noun or verb, while dis'pute is the same – but different (despite the 'disputes one sometimes hears these days). This hardly solves all problems – such as when to sound the ‘h’ in words like hair and heir, or indeed in the name of the letter h itself – but Dr Johnson knew what to do about that sort of thing, too: ‘Short directions are sometimes given where the sound of letters is irregular.’ The sound-spelling table that LNGD gives as an appendix goes some way towards making amends for this important omission, however.

The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary (or F&W) arrives on these shores from America, where Funk and Wagnalls have been a respectable name (or names) in the dictionary world since 1893, and offers us ‘more than 100,000 entries’ for £4.95. Is it any good? Who cares! With so much dictionary for so little money, how can anyone go wrong? Nevertheless, for those who hesitate to buy books by bulk alone, it might be appropriate to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. For one thing, its copyright history invites scrutiny. It was published in 1980 – but previous editions date from as far back as 1964. How much has been done to it between then and now? Does it, for instance, include ‘address a problem’, backlash in its political sense, the big-bang theory, the cloze of ‘cloze tests’, the combining forms eco- and -in (as in ‘teach-in’), the into of ‘he’s into health foods,’ the suffix -nik, or any reference (as at transform, transformation or transformational) to Chomsky’s transformational grammar? The short answer is no – except for the big-bang theory. One can only conclude that F&W is more a dictionary of the early 1960s than the late 1970s, though not without some innovations: whilst without Women’s Liberation, it includes Gay Liberation.

Well, then, what is in F&W? What constitutes the hundred thousand entries it boasts of? In answering that question, we may be able to learn something about how a larger dictionary differs from a smaller one. Consider, for example, compounds whose first element is water. Not all of them, but only those whose second element begins with the letter c (and which are not only listed but also defined). OAD has seven: water chestnut, water closet, watercolor, water cooler, watercourse, watercraft and watercress. F&W, by contrast, provides ten: all the above, plus water clock, the verb water-cool, and water cure. On the other hand, the 1979 Collins English Dictionary claims 162,000 ‘references’ and gives 15 here: F&W’s ten, together with water cannon, Water Carrier (Aquarius), water chinquapin, water crake and water cycle. After that battle of the megasaurs, it would seem that anyone who wanted more words would have to move up to something at least as massive as the ‘Shorter Oxford’. But surprisingly enough, my 1975 Chambers 20th-century Dictionary, though much more compact in format than the other three and claiming a modest 125,000 references, actually has 22 defined entries here: all ten of F&W’s, plus water-cannon, water carriage, water-cart, water-cell, water-cement, water-chute, water-cock, water-colourist, water-core, water-cow, water-crane and water-culture. A more important issue of principle raised by this comparison is how you fill the extra space allowed by a dictionary that’s large enough to admit more than the irreducible core vocabulary, yet not so large as to admit everything. The question of inclusion and exclusion is the first question lexicographers get asked at cocktail parties, and perhaps the last question they’ll be able to answer.

F&W is of American origin, and larger than OAD. How does it rate as a dictionary of American English? Like OAD, it has the core Americanisms elevator and stroller, and the motoring terms hood, trunk and windshield. Like OAD it has not got their British equivalents (except for lift). And as for the random Americanisms used earlier to put OAD through its paces – chew out, gurney, hang glider (now international) and hang loose – F&W has only chew out. And no, it has not got gridlock.

F&W is strikingly out of date, and not really chock-a-block with Americanisms. But it does offer an extensive sample of standard vocabulary items, plus etymologies and illustrations. It also offers some features characteristic of medium-to-large American dictionaries of English but not common here: short essays differentiating synonyms (such as stealthy, furtive, surreptitious and clandestine), a built-in ‘Secretarial Handbook’ with information – about punctuation and the format of letters, for example – only some of which will lead British users astray, and appendices of Geographical and Biographical names.