It might seem like a hard call to review a dictionary. Unlike most books I review, I didn’t read the giant 9th edition of the Collins English Dictionary (available from Amazon.co.uk) from cover to cover. I wasn’t able to look up every word in this book that I didn’t know – there were too many. But I did spend an awful lot of time with this attractive book, working through it at random like a puzzle, testing other members of my family, and even just stroking the large, slightly transparent pages which have a rather luxurious feel about them.
Calling this book sexy is probably ridiculous, but it certainly is handsome. Large and solid, the book has a mock satin rich blue cover, blue and white text that is very easy to read even though it’s small and dense, and those crisp smooth pages might even be called seductive as you work through the book, taking in small grains of knowledge, checking your understanding, finding out your longstanding mis-usages, and supporting any other linguistically-oriented activity, from Scrabble, to writing a novel, creating a poem, or helping your children with their homework.
This is no ordinary dictionary. The publisher is taking great pains to make sure that the purchaser understands how modern it is, despite the slightly old fashioned medieval look it has (and I’m afraid that’s more the charm for me than its technological advancement – call me a Luddite if you will). When you buy the hard copy, you can access the entire thing electronically online, download a copy to your desktop, download dictionary buttons for your browser or Word, or even access it via a WAP site on your mobile. There’s also stuff like “word of the day”, a pronunciation guide, and a terrific search engine for finding words. You just go to their website at www.collinslanguage.com and register.
During the day I’ll probably use the online version in preference to walking over to the bookshelf, but once the lights dim and my PC is off, the print version comes into its own. There are quite a few neat features. First of all, this book has the latest lingo, from words like “Lactivist”, to “me-media”. If being able to look up the latest meaning doesn’t matter to you, that’s okay, because there are plenty of classic and even archaic words here such as “crake”, “linnet”, or “sabretache”. There are also scientific words, slang from all English speaking countries, and enough long, beautiful words to inspire any poet.
One thing I really like about this dictionary is that it has little usage hints after commonly used words to let you know errors that many people make, along with little etymological tidbits. For example, after “actual”, the usage section tells me that “The excessive use of actual and actually should be avoided. They are unnecessary in sentences…” (good advice). Where there are multiple words with the same spelling but different sources (homographs), there are superscript numbers to differentiate them. Abbreviations and alternative spellings are also provided, along with information about pronunciation, parts of speech, grammatical information, cross references, and etymology.
And somehow all that blue and white makes it seem really clean and easy to find everything. My ten year old logophile was reading this in preference to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so I know it must be good. Mind you, he’s now finished Potter and hasn’t finished with the dictionary.
Move over OED. I’m afraid my rather worse-for-wear, mouldy, condensed two-volume set I’ve kept since my university days might need to meet its maker. The latest Collins English Dictionary is a beauty and has everything you want in a dictionary. It’s both ultra-modern and classic; big in scope and size, but still fits on the bookshelf; attractive but not the slightest bit obsequious; serious but with its nod to lingo and mediaspeak, still fun. If you don’t already have a major dictionary reference tool, this is an exceptional one, and though not cheap, an excellent investment. It may not look portable, but you can still carry it on your mobile. It doesn’t get better.
iCollins English Dictionary
9th Edition, Collins
Hardback, 1888pages; $89.99
Available August 1, 2007 from AmazonUK