Dictionaries are so essential a part of literate life that it is easy to take them for granted, with one elderly and well-thumbed favorite on the desk, neglecting the range and variety available. For years, I have relied mainly on the "Concise Oxford," nowadays replacing it with the new editions that seem to gain greatly in crispness of definition from their frequent revision. The "Shorter Oxford" is useful mainly as a guide to the "Oxford English Dictionary" itself, which is essential for any serious work, not least for the fascination provided by browsing in its now-completed supplement. Second to the "Concise Oxford," I usually have placed "Chambers," a reliable and companionable standby which enjoys a special reputation as the crossword-puzzle and Scrabble addict's dictionary. "Chambers" used to be revised piecemeal, but the adjustments merely tinkered with the text; however, this new edition--the first to be made available in the United States--is a substantial revision, attractively laid out, which confirms "Chambers' " high position among a growing number of commercial rivals.
Under its present title, it goes back to 1901, but its origins lie in the publications of its sponsoring firm, which was prominent in providing so many compilations for Victorian popular education. This partly accounts for an encyclopedic quality that still shows, as well as a definitely Scottish element in its choice of words and its residual puritanism. The primness shows itself in some definitions: pander , for example, is "one who procures for another the means of gratifying his base passions," and is cross-referenced to pimp , which used to have more or less the same obfuscating information. At last, the editors have brought themselves to add a reference to prostitution under pimp . "Chambers" was the reliably discreet reference book used by girls and teachers in schools like that of Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," but it has at last come out with a range of definitions that it has long been misleading to omit or fudge. Bestiality and buggery , for example, are adequately covered in a volume that had hitherto omitted arsehole . Distasteful though such words must appear to some readers, the editor of a dictionary claiming comprehensiveness is right not to allow misplaced gentility to dictate linguistic exclusions.