25 Women to Read Before You Die

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 17th, 2004


Chambers Concise Dictionary


Grimy times

A review by Jonathan Hope

Earlier this year, the American rap artist Kelis boasted from the top of the charts that, "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard". Even if you agree with Chambers Concise Dictionary that DNB stands for Dictionary of National Biography and not "Drum'n'Bass", you will probably guess that the "milkshake" Kelis had in mind was not "a drink consisting of a mixture of milk, flavouring and sometimes ice cream, whipped together until creamy". Just what was so attractive to all those boys has been hotly debated across the internet, on message boards devoted to song lyrics, as well as that nemesis of the paper dictionary, the website urbandictionary.com. If you Google "Kelis milkshake", you will find yourself in an anarchic, frequently offensive, sometimes deliberately misleading, world of competing, overlapping and contradictory definitions. In African-American Vernacular English, "Milkshake" seems to have a range of meanings, of which the least likely to give offence in a family publication is "female sexual presence or charisma". No doubt some or all of these meanings first arose as mistaken attempts to explain an unfamiliar term: but they now have a presence on the Web, and may be gaining currency. The problem for dictionary-makers is what to do with such intractable, and possibly ephemeral, material.

In the past, "ignore it" would probably have been the answer, but today, all major dictionaries are sold on the basis of the up-to-date vocabulary they contain. This obsession with newness returns us to the earliest days of English dictionaries, when "hard word" lists sought to translate newly coined Latinate vocabulary for a growing market of literate but non-classically educated readers. As "milkshake" demonstrates, however, new words today are not relatively transparent formations from Latin or Greek elements; they are much more likely to be innovative uses of familiar forms. Tune in to 1Xtra, the BBC's digital radio station devoted to new black music, and you may hear a particularly good song described as "grimy", while the presenters encourage the listeners to "big up yourselves".

This new Chambers Concise won't help you much with "milkshake" or "grimy", but "big up" is there, and the entry on "drum and bass" is accurate and informative. The dictionary is based on "the resources of" the larger Chambers Dictionary, long the reference work of choice for crossword and Scrabble enthusiasts, and the main dictionary's characteristic range of archaic, literary and recent vocabulary, with etymological information, is reflected here. The Concise is about 500 pages shorter than its sibling, but heavier paper means the two have similar physical dimensions.

The compilers of the Concise have aimed, generally successfully, at a style avoiding dictionaryspeak; so "civet", defined as "a small cat-like carnivore of the genus Viverra" in the main dictionary, becomes "a small spotted and striped carnivorous mammal found in Asia and Africa". Note that despite the title, the definitions are not necessarily shorter. Visually, the Concise is superior: there is a larger typeface, more white space on the page, and different senses within entries are separated by numbers rather than the austere semi-colons of the main dictionary. Pronunciation is marked using the International Phonetic Alphabet -- another major advance on the main Chambers.

Produced from Edinburgh, Chambers is known for its coverage of Scottish English, and here we have, among others, "stushie" (a row) and "kenspeckle" (conspicuous). Disappointingly though, the dictionary offers a sanitized, kaleyard view of Scots vocabulary: you will search in vain for "schemie" (lower class, pertaining to council housing schemes) or "ned" (typically an unemployed youth from the schemes). The absence of these two terms, in wide currency in written and spoken English in Scotland, suggests that "Chambers wordtrack", "a 365-day-a-year programme" monitoring the latest developments in English, and supposedly gathering 500 new words every month, is not quite as gee-whizz as the publishers think. It does not seem to have noticed the new verb "to Google" either.

Modern dictionary-makers find themselves in something of a paradoxical position. As good linguists, they approach language descriptively: a new way of using "grimy" is an interesting development, not an incorrect corruption. Dictionaries, however, are inherently prescriptive, and to some extent, it is their job to misdescribe the true state of the language to us. Urbandictionary.com is a lot of fun, but not much use if you want one clear definition of "milkshake". Something of this paradox comes across when the publishers tell us that the new Chambers Concise "is backed by the authority of the British National Corpus ®". This is a curious use of the term "authority", since the British National Corpus was an ambitious attempt to construct a representative sample of spoken and written English: it sought to show us what people actually do, and such a descriptive tool can only have "authority" if we revise our definition of that term to mean the will of the majority, or what everyone does. It is a safe bet that people who buy dictionaries want "authority" in the sense of "correct" spellings, "real" meanings and clear distinctions.

Dictionary-makers are therefore caught between the economic imperative to offer people what they think they want, and the linguistic imperative to describe a language. Clear distinctions are something dictionary-makers impose on their material; not something they discover in the data. There is no absolute solution to this, but Chambers Concise comes up with an interesting way of having and eating its linguistic cake in a series of usage boxes which highlight issues likely to cause confusion: effect/ affect, libel/slander, flaunt/flout, the use of "literally". Each case is discussed in impeccably descriptive terms, then readers are given clear warnings and sensible advice. After all, who wants to pay good money for a book which simply tells you what all the other fools do?

Jonathan Hope is Reader in Literary Linguistics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. His Shakespeare's Grammar was published by the Arden Shakespeare last year.

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