Word Up

Which dictionary is the best?

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’ssherbet/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.

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:

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).

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).

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.

Total Score: 79 (Stock, 18; Definitions, 23; Usage Guidance, 10; Etymologies, 9; Enjoyment, 19).

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, $24.99 The New World has some of the best and clearest definitions of any dictionary; compare “regret (n.), a troubled feeling or remorse over something that has happened, esp. over something that one has done or left undone”with, for example, Random House’s much vaguer “a sense of loss, disappointment, dissatisfaction, etc.” Its reference supplements—the Constitution, the Brightest Stars, the Tornado Damage Potential Scale (light, moderate, considerable, severe, devastating, incredible[!], not expected[!!])—are a joy to browse. And its thumb index tabs have a special feature—little arrows roughly indicating whether the, say, LM tab has been placed more toward the L or the M words—that raises them above their competition. (My excitement at this discovery was quickly overshadowed by the realization of how urgently I need to get a life.) So, what’s not to love? Although the etymological information it does provide is great, it leaves out the date when a word first entered the language. It has a funky way of indicating syllables (par-ticu-lar as opposed to the standard par-tic-u-lar). And there are no separate usage notes; the terms “loose usage” and “objected to by some” were appended inconsistently—to second definitions of, for example, “disinterested,” “literally,” and “enormity” but not of “fortuitous” or “hopefully.”

Total Score: 86.5 (Stock, 21; Definitions, 24; Usage Guidance, 8; Etymologies, 11; Enjoyment, 22.5).

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, $24.95 Random House acquits itself admirably in every category. Its illustrations merit special mention for not wasting space on photos of famous people, for providing supplemental information (like the measurements of every animal it depicts), and for a certain je ne sais quoi (check out the drawings of “leaf forms,” “glove box,” or “eel”). Its essay “Avoiding Insensitive and Offensive Language” sensibly counsels that readers eschew the terms “the little woman, old lady, or ball and chain” and try “wife” instead. But while it includes my favorite definition of “velleity”—“1. volition in its weakest form 2. a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it” [sigh]—other entries were decidedly less stirring. It was hard for me to picture a “trestle,” for example, from the definition “a frame typically composed of a horizontal member rigidly attached at each end to the top of a transverse A-frame,” and it was only after other dictionaries explained in simpler language that it’s a board supported by splayed legs that I began to cotton on.

Total Score: 87.5 (Stock, 21; Definitions, 22; Usage Guidance, 10; Etymologies, 12; Enjoyment, 22.5).

American Heritage College Dictionary, $26
American Heritage’s information is handsomely and clearly presented; its usage notes are set apart from regular entries via gray shading and its margins are lined with photographs. It rewards both casual browsing and directed searches with its Word Histories (check out the one for “beef,” which is all about why there are different words for animals and their meat), Regional Notes (under “kindling” you’ll find the various names Southerners have for it), and appendix of Indo-European roots. Another feature unique to American Heritage is that the advice it doles out in its Usage Notes comes from surveys sent out to members of its Usage Panel, made up of “200 writers, scholars, and others whose livelihood depends on their using language to great effect.” It’s interesting from a lexicographic perspective to learn that 68 percent of the Usage Panel accepts the use of “aggravate” to mean “annoy” but frustrating from a practical perspective (should I use it 68 percent of the time then?). And I’d rather be told plainly that most people object to the use of “disinterested” to mean “uninterested” than that, “In a 1988 survey, 89 percent rejected [this use], a proportion that is not significantly different from the 93 percent who disapproved of it in a 1980 survey.” In sum, I often (let’s say 71 percent of the time) found myself wishing the opinions of the venerable Usage Panel would be distilled into more clear-cut advice.

Total Score: 88 (Stock, 23; Definitions, 22; Usage Guidance, 9; Etymologies, 11; Enjoyment, 23).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, $25.95 Since this has long been considered the gold standard of desk dictionaries and is the only real” Webster’s (descended from Noah’s 1828 original), I was more surprised by the small margin by which it beat its three nearest competitors than by its emergence at the head of the pack. The main beef I have with it is that it doesn’t list most standard variants separately; look up “hejira” (as Joni Mitchell spells it on her album of the same name) in any other dictionary and you’ll be directed with Midwestern helpfulness to “hegira,” a slightly more common spelling, where the full definition can be found. Merriam-Webster’s throws you no such bone. If and only if you’re discerning enough to go straight to “hegira” will you be rewarded with the information that it’s also spelled with a j. Otherwise, Merriam-Webster’s is hard to argue with: It had the highest percentage of words I looked up; it exerts an intoxicating old-world authority; its illustrations are soulful; it comes with a subscription to its Web site and a CD-ROM. Its usage notes are at once the least prescriptive and the most haughty of any of the dictionaries; the note for “disinterested”—and there’s nary a contested usage whose cause Merriam-Webster’s doesn’t take up—reads in part: “Use of senses 1a and 1b [not interested] will incur the disapproval of some who may not fully appreciate the history of this word or the subtleties of its present use.” This is the aristocrat who can afford to be a Marxist. This is the one to buy.

Total Score: 90 (Stock, 24; Definitions, 21; Usage Guidance, 12; Etymologies, 12; Enjoyment, 21).