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Review: ‘The Chambers Dictionary, 13th Edition’

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In 1800 and 1802, respectively, two boys were born in Peebles, a small town in the Scottish Borders, each with twelve fingers and twelve toes. The locals thought their extra digits lucky. They may have been right.

Shuffling around in their attic, the elder of the two found an ancient set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. "What the gift of a whole toy-shop would have been to most children," he wrote in his memoirs of dipping into them for the first time, "this book was to me. I plunged into it. I roamed through it like a bee."

William and Robert Chambers, sons of a hand weaver driven out of business by the power loom, became prosperous publishers, churning out Scott-related minutiae, antiquarian and bibliographical works, travel guides, primers, anthologies, collections of jokes, a monumental Life and Works of Robert Burns in four volumes, Notices of the Most Remarkable Fires Which Have Occurred in Edinburgh, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, A History of the Rebellion of 1745, and, of course, their eponymous Encyclopædia and Dictionary.

Those who, like me, wasted their golden youth among the broken links and aseptic prose of Wikipedia will appreciate the breezy meticulousness of the original ten-volume Chambers’s Encyclopædia, which can be bought online now for a song:

PUG or PUG-DOG, a kind of dog much like the bull-dog in form, and in particular, in its much abbreviated muzzle. The nose is often a little turned up. The disposition is, however, extremely unlike that of the bull-dog, being characterized by great timidity and gentleness. They are often very affectionate and good-natured, bearing without resentment the roughest handling to which children can subject them. The common English Pug is usually yellowish with a black snout, the tail firmly curled over the back. New breeds have of late been introduced from China and Japan, interesting from their peculiar appearance, gentleness, and docility, with extremely short puggish muzzle; the Chinese breed very small with smooth hair; the Japanese rather larger, with an exuberance of long soft hair and a very bushy tail.

I think of these remarkable brothers—one the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, the other the anonymous author of the dotty but influential Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation—with their indefatigable Scottish industry and lightly borne erudition whenever I open The Chambers Dictionary, which has just appeared in its 13th edition. The latest Chambers is 1,936 pages long and, at just over five pounds, not unmanageably heavy. I have just spent five weeks with it, reading straight through from A ("the first letter of the modern English alphabet as in the Roman") to zythum ("a kind of beer made by the ancient Egyptians, highly commended by Diodurus Siculus, a writer of 1BC") during my morning and evening commutes and at the office while waiting for reporters to file.

The Chambers occupies a strange place in the landscape of contemporary lexicography. In the so-called "usage wars" of the last few decades, it has played the role of Switzerland, quietly prospering while its neighbors kill one another over the meanings of "transpire" and "reticent." Where the American Heritage and, more subtly and to a lesser extent, the Oxford English dictionaries have shown us how to use words and their foes at Random House and Merriam-Webster have gone out of their way to excuse and even to pay homage to rank sloppiness, the Chambers has counseled readers with a winsomeness and a lightness of touch that is entirely in keeping with the cheerful, self-improving spirit of William and Robert.

Some of us are picky about our dictionaries. A previous Chambers, the ninth edition of 2003, has been my working dictionary for five years, supplanting a well-worn first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary found at a rummage sale for $0.25 that has since split in two. There is almost nowhere else to turn. The two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of 1936 is impractically heavy and out of date; ditto the 3,214-page Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1952, perhaps the last decent reference book bearing the name of the great lexicographer. Other print dictionaries are either too limited in their range of words or too loose with their definitions; most are both. An individual subscription to the OED Online is beyond my means. Dictionary.com and the website of what is now the Merriam-Webster corporation are both unspeakably bad.

Those of us who snigger when President Obama speaks of the "the enormity of the task that lies ahead" and reach gleefully for our dog-eared Fowlers and Folletts when we catch a reporter at the Detroit News describing Michigan State’s basketball players as "disinterested," as if they were shooting free throws for both teams, will find little to complain about in the Chambers. With admirable good manners, the latter usage, for example, is gently condemned as having been "revived from obsolesence," which is enough to give potential misusers pause without giving John McWhorter a good reason to keep his knickers anything other than firmly unbundled.

That is not to say that linguistic politics do not intrude. Marriage, in previous editions "the ceremony, act or contract by which a man and woman become husband and wife; a similar ceremony, etc, between homosexuals," has been changed to "the ceremony, act or contract by which two people become married to each other." On the other hand, the principal definition of gender remains "a distinction of words roughly corresponding to the sex to which they refer." To the loaded question of what to call men who identify themselves as women and vice versa, they respond— ingeniously, I think—by simply printing two definitions, for transgender and transsexual. Culture-war partisans will look up the one and be smugly satisfied without knowing the other exists.

All dictionaries make a great show of introducing new words. One of the mainstays of Chambers in recent editions has been its hilariously unspecific, antique-sounding, and at times inaccurate definitions of words related to technology. The GameBoy, which just celebrated its 26th anniversary, is "a hand-held battery-operated device for playing computer games"; blog remains "a document containing personal observations, often in the form of a journal, that is published on the World Wide Web." An iPad is "a brand of small personal computer." Clickbait are "intriguing or sensational hyperlinks that encourage readers to click through to another website." I was amused to see netizen, microbrowser, and widget, all words I’d forgotten about, preserved for posterity.

Some of the additions are surely meant to drum up publicity. Moobs, defined pretty much as one would expect, shows up here in between moo and mooch. "Unusually good" is as helpful a definition of amazeballs as one is likely to come across. The principal sense of natch—not, in fact, a recent coinage—is now "of course, short for naturally," pushing "the rump" into second place. The straightforwardness of twerk, "to thrust the hips up and down from a squatting position," made me wonder whether it was really new. One fresh word was unknown to me—is a bashtag "a hashtag used for critical or abusive comments"?

Chambers also has a long history of teasing definitions. The meritocracy, for example, is "the class of people who are in prominent positions because of their ability, real or apparent." A ski mask is "a knitted covering for the whole head except the eyes, worn for protection by skiers and bank robbers"; a jaywalker, "a careless pedestrian whom motorists are expected to avoid running down." My favorite is buckwheat, "seed used esp in Europe for feeding horses, cattle and poultry, and esp in America for making into flour to make cakes for the breakfast-table," a clear echo of Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of "oat." A humorless editor removed all of these during the ’70s, but most were restored after readers complained. (Not, alas, Havana cigar as "a fine quality of cigar, fondly supposed to be made at Havana.")

For many years the Chambers was the official dictionary for British players of Scrabble. It is easy to see why. Flipping through, one is reminded that there are more words in heaven and earth than writers, especially journalists, dream of. When Chris Christie threw the fat into the fire by suggesting that parents have the right not to have their children vaccinated against measles, quality periodicals decried the influence of "anti-vaxxers," an ugly-looking neologism, when they ought to have been heaping scorn on antivaccinationistsNefandous, "abominable," surely belongs in a Bret Stephens column. A fozy man is "spongy; lacking in freshness; fat; slow-witted." To stritch is "to shriek, screech." Galloon, well known to my wife but not to me, is "a kind of lace; a narrow tapelike trimming or binding material, sometimes made with gold or silver thread." Hareld means "the long-tailed duck, Clangula hyemalis," what we used to call the "oldsquaw." Gemmeous, "relating to gems; like a gem," is a beautiful Paterian adjective. To be jacent is to be "lying flat; sluggish." A mease is "a measure of five ‘hundreds’ of herrings, varying from 500 to 630." Melanochroi is "one of the racial types proposed by T.H. Huxley (1828-95), having dark hair and white skin," a beautiful word for a disagreeable idea. Looby is a wonderful thing to call "a clumsy, clownish person." To jaculate is "to throw a javelin." Jaycee ("a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce") and jarool ("the Indian bloodwood") are not rappers. A mere swine, as readers of Anglo-Saxon will guess, is a porpoise or a dolphin. A shroff is a wonderful Anglo-Indian term for a banker. A butter bump is an attractively evocative word for a bittern. Like pulchritude, bort, "diamond fragments or dust," is one of those words whose sound does not prepare one for its meaning.

I could have devoted this entire review to the new words I’ve learned related to intoxication and what I take to be their fine shades of meaning. Blootered, I think, is how one feels after the first few gins—witty, gregarious, carefree—while bladdered is mid to late-drunk; guttered is the cab ride home at 2:00 a.m, puggled is that light-averse, pickled feeling the next morning.

Last, there is the supplemental material at the back, which I enjoy because it reminds me of what, before the Internet, we thought the whole of useful human knowledge looked like when gathered in one place. The Greek, Russian, Arabic and Hindu alphabets; Roman numerals; the chemical elements; the SI units of measurement; the Beaufort, Mohs, Mercalli, and Richter scales; wine-bottle sizes; wedding anniversaries and suggested gifts; mathematical symbols; the planets and their major satellites—all of these have been retained from earlier editions, no doubt at the insistence of crossword mavens who like to have their trivia all in one place. (The books of the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays have disappeared, however.) Audacious parents-to-be could do worse than to consult the idiosyncratic list of "Some first names," which provides both meanings and etymologies for, among others, Glenys, Evadne, Euphemia, Auriel, and Clodagh; Washington Free Beacon readers will be pleased to learn that Ronald is Old Norse for "wise ruler."

This is the best single-volume dictionary in our language. It is also a thoroughly enjoyable book and, at $65, a great bargain.

Matthew Walther   Email Matthew | Full Bio | RSS
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. He was previously assistant editor of the American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator of London, First Things, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, in Alexandria, Virginia. His Twitter handle is @matthewwalther.

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