Searching for the best dictionary.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 4 2003 12:54 PM

Word Up

Which dictionary is the best?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

It can be a challenge to get at what sets a dictionary apart from its peers. First, you have to move beyond the marked family resemblance (thumb index tabs, speckled pages, and a preference for the name Webster), the swaggering jacket copy ("The most useful dictionary you can own," "The most up-to-date dictionary available," "America's favorite dictionary," etc.), and the shrink-wrap put in place to encourage you and your grubby hands to judge a book by its cover alone. Then you must read indefatigably through scads of introductory material and reference supplements, weigh the merits of different line drawings of jerboas and lazy tongs and the like, and, above all, look up words you know over and over again. I, unencumbered by gainful employment and needing to be kept off the streets, am the very definition of a person up for this challenge.

Before I tell you the results of my tests, there are some hard questions you should ask yourself about what it is that you want from a dictionary. For starters, what type of usage advice do you favor? Would you prefer your dictionary to be prescriptive (espousing and promoting the idea of a "correct" way to use language) or descriptive (reflecting in a neutral manner the way language actually gets used)? One of the primary differences among dictionaries is the extent to which they try to steer you away from disputed uses (Oxford American's "Frequency of misuse has not changed the fact that the spelling sherbert and the pronunciation/sher'bert are wrong and should not be considered acceptable variants" is at one end of the spectrum, and the laissez-faire attitude of Merriam-Webster's "sherbet/sher'bet/ also sherbert/-bert/" is at the other.) Another question is: In what order do you want to find the various meanings of a word? Most dictionaries list the most commonly sought definition first, but Merriam-Webster's and Webster's New World give them in historical order. This means that if you're looking up, say, "rehearse" in Merriam-Webster's, it won't be until Definition 4a that you'll find the familiar meaning "to practice for a performance." Finally: To what extent do you want your dictionary to serve as an encyclopedia? Some dictionaries offer everything from photos, maps, and relatively detailed biographical information to lists of presidents, populations, world currencies, and notable deserts. Depending on your tastes, these could be a strong selling point or mere bells and whistles.

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Methodology: I restricted my testing to seven of the relatively affordable and frequently updated college dictionaries (the type of dictionary used not only in the most dormitory rooms but in the most homes and offices as well). To determine my rankings, I looked up seven times over words that I knew but wanted to understand better (like regret, jealous, and overdetermined); words with disputed usages (including aggravate, disinterested, fortuitous); words with potentially interesting etymologies (e.g., chauvinism, juggernaut, lagniappe); neologisms and slang (e.g., blogger, booty, yay); anything friends had looked up recently (e.g., Panglossian, condominium, alembic); as well as the words I didn't know in the last book I read, J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. This last category yielded words I'd never seen before—like dogsbody, topi, and graduand—and words that were tauntingly familiar but that I actually couldn't have defined correctly to save my life—like hackles (I knew the phrase "raise one's hackles" but what exactly were "hackles" themselves?), serge (I knew it was a fabric but what kind?), and exiguous (was it not the same word as "exigent"?).

I rated the dictionaries in five categories. 1. Stock (out of 25 points)—how often each dictionary had the word I was seeking. 2. Definitions (25 points)—the accuracy, clarity, precision, and élan of the explanations of the words' meanings. 3. Usage Guidance (12.5 points;I felt this category, while clearly important, should be weighted less than the first two)—the consistency and reliability of usage notes, as well as the quality and quantity of synonyms and illustrative examples. 4. Etymologies (12.5 points; same thing goes for the weighting of this category)—the comprehensiveness of this information. And5. Enjoyment (25 points)—illustrations, supplemental material, ease-of-use (typeface, location of pronunciation key, facility of finding specific definitions), and, for lack of a better word—and a phrase I feel guilty using with seven dictionaries strewn at my feet—chemistry: Did I feel the dictionary was looking down at me? Or that I was smarter than it was? Was it too clingy? Unobjectionable but unexciting? Simply put: Did it make me look forward to spending more time with it?

Here are my results, from worst to best:

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Webster's II New College Dictionary, $24 The first thing to know is that "Webster" is a name in the public domain and, as such, can be used by anyone. Dictionaries with "Webster" in their title have no more in common with each other than with any other dictionary. Also, when Webster's II explains that it was "created especially to serve the needs of a wide variety of readers," this is a subtle way of saying that offensive words of any stripe (it moves briskly from "fuchsin" to "fucoid" and from "niggardly" to "niggle"), not to mention a good number of seemingly inoffensive ones (try looking for anhedonia or éminence grise) have been excluded from its pages. With its dry but sensible presentation of information, Webster's II is a solid choice if you're home-schooling your teenager. Otherwise, I couldn't find a reason to pick it over any other dictionary.

Total Score: 60 (Stock, 14; Definitions, 17; Usage Guidance, 6; Etymologies, 7; Enjoyment, 16).

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Oxford American College Dictionary, $25.95
Oxford American's usage notes are among the best I've found: clear, consistent, sensibly prescriptive, and up-to-date (it's the only dictionary to acknowledge that "nonplussed" is frequently misused to mean "unperturbed"). Its rendering of slang into dictionaryese—"shake one's booty" is defined as "dance energetically"—is a thing of beauty. And yet, dazzled as I was by its wealth of pop culture listings—Ladies and gentlemen, in their only appearances in a college dictionary!—"Leno, Jay" ("full name James Douglas Muir Leno"); "Collins, Phil" ("his many solo hits include 'Sussudio' "); and "Sly" (Sylvester Stallone's nickname gets its own separate entry!)—I had the nagging feeling that the space being given to these nuggets, not to mention the large and detail-free maps of every country listed, was being taken away from something more vital and appropriate to a dictionary. And alas, the Oxford American is alone in not offering regular etymological information—it instead bestows a longer "Word History" on the occasional lucky entry—or synonyms. What a misallocation of talent.

Total Score: 60.5 (Stock, 21; Definitions, 16; Usage Guidance, 8; Etymologies, 2; Enjoyment, 13.5).

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Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary, $24.95 This is the first entirely new college dictionary to be published in three decades and its relation to the error-ridden and much-derided Encarta World English Dictionary (a New York Times article singled out its pronunciation of Niagara Falls as "nigara fawlz" and its inclusion of a photo of Bill Gates but not of John F. Kennedy) has meant that it's had to struggle to prove itself as a serious contender. That said, it does have a number of things going for it: clear and nuanced definitions, extensive coverage of Internet terms (it is alone in including entries such as "blog," "LOL," and "digital divide,"although it is also, thankfully, alone in insisting on putting a goofy lighting bolt in front of every high-tech word), and consistent—and consistently conservative—usage notes ("Many people object when hopefully is used as a so-called sentence adverb. … You can avoid the whole problem by saying Let's hope, Let us hope, or It is to be hoped"). But ultimately, I found myself exhausted and often exasperated by its newcomer's efforts to please. I like a dictionary to give me a little space and let me find my definitions in peace. Sometimes, I want to be able to look up "woman" without being led via a chatty "Literary Link" feature to Little Women, a "family saga set in 1860s New England." I don't always want to be hounded by the breathless homophone warning: "Beware: your spellchecker will not catch this error." And I felt embarrassed for it when it had to define "fuck": It imparted the sundry meanings of the word in the typographical equivalent of a whisper and repeated the phrase "a highly offensive term" 18 times as though it had been made to write it on a blackboard as punishment.