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Zarf Trug Snye Zax Rax Moolvee

May 01, 1988|EDMUND L. EPSTEIN | Epstein is professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center for the City University of New York, specializing in linguistics, especially the linguistics of dictionaries and the linguistic experiments of modern authors. and

Zarf? Trug? Snye? The opening lineup for the Martian World Series? Not at all: words from the Random House unabridged dictionary. Unabridged dictionaries are exotic, rare creatures. Leaving aside, as a special case, the wonderful Oxford English Dictionary, whose editors intended to include all words that had ever been in the English language, there are only three unabridged dictionaries in English:

Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary--Unabridged (1961)

Funk & Wagnalls' New Comprehensive International Dictionary of the English Language (1963)

Random House's Dictionary of the English Language 1st edition 1966; 2nd edition 1987.

At its publication last fall, RHD-II (so to abbreviate it) was thus the first new unabridged dictionary in 20 years; and early reviews notwithstanding, the lexicographical community is still making up its mind about the work.

Editors of unabridged dictionaries are special sorts of people. Every day, English-speakers desperately try to express in words the novelties that the universe throws at them. They produce new words and use old ones in new ways. The English language, therefore, cannot look like a chalk garden. It is much more like an erupting volcano. At each hour of the day, and during most of the night, millions of words, new and old, rush like lava out of speakers' mouths and pour into the ears of millions of listeners. The editors of unabridged dictionaries watch intently over the stream of lava, to catch the innovations that pop blazing out of the volcano at the estimated rate of one new word per day. The editors of RHD-II have watched intently and collected carefully.

The number of terms defined in each of the three dictionaries turns out to vary little. Of the three, the Merriam-Webster Third is the oldest. The direct descendant of Noah Webster's original American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), MW-III was begun in 1953 and published in 1961, and it contains about 240,000 terms. The Funk & Wagnalls, published in 1963, contains about 208,000. RHD-II contains about 175,000. The differences among the word counts can be put down to the inclusion of differing numbers of proper names and geographical terms; it is useful and handy to include such terms in the dictionaries, but there are other, more inclusive sources for all of these proper nouns in separate dictionaries of biography and geographical terms. Therefore, as far as the number of actual terms defined is concerned, all of these dictionaries are about equal.

I should add that these estimates are my own. Dictionary publishers have something to gain by inflating their word counts, so they list as a word to be defined every word that appears in boldface type in the dictionary. Therefore, hopeless, hopelessly, and hopelessness would count as three words, even though only hopeless had a full definition. MW-III claims "over 450,000"; FW claims "over 458,000 terms defined"; RHD-II claims "over 315,000."

The real differences, the more vital ones, are to be found in inclusiveness and contemporary coverage. Here, of course, the most recent publication, RHD-II, is the best, since it is the newest. However, it is better in two other respects as well: usage notes and etymologies.

Usage is a red-hot issue, and the editors of RHD-II have seized it without hesitation. We all remember the roar that greeted MW-III in 1961 because it seemed to regard as acceptable clumsy modern jargon (remember the savage fights over finalize, disinterested and hopefully ? ) and even vulgar and obscene terms. It had no usage notes, thereby seeming to give its approval to terms that educated readers would not want anyone to use. The American Heritage Dictionary (1969), taking the lesson to heart, convened a panel of 105 usage experts and carefully noted levels of usage and acceptability with such completeness and subtlety that their notes have become standard sources of reference.

The AHD is not an unabridged dictionary, but the editors of RHD-II have followed its lead. In this second edition of their dictionary, they have considerably expanded its usage notes and have carefully defined levels of usage, both in the text and in an introductory essay on usage by Thomas J. Cresswell and Virginia McDavid, acknowledging the work of the late Raven McDavid, the author of the usage essay in RHD-I. The labels vulgar and disparaging are used freely and accurately. (And yes, the Big Dirties are there, all labeled vulgar. ) The editors have preserved a tone of calmness and civilized tolerance in their usage notes, but they have taken pains to see that users of doubtful novelties (such as finalize, prioritize and other - ize words) are warned that some people might be offended by their use. In addition, all controversial terms are treated with sensitivity and accuracy; for example, see the notes on gay and related terms.

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