Putting the Dick in Dictionary

by Dave Mandl

The idea of shopping for anything on Wall and Broad Streets is manifestly ridiculous, but shopping for books there seems particularly crazy. To inveterate bibliophiles (or cheapskates), the dozens of bookmongers dotting the sidewalks in the area and advertising "ALL BOOKS $1" might seem worth at least slowing down for, but a closer look confirms your worst fears: though the goods are all in A-1 condition, and many are even pricey hardcovers, about the best you can ever hope to find in the mish-mash of third-rate remainders is a Doonesbury collection, a cheesy fairy tale compendium, or a coffee-table book of Mary Cassatt paintings or photos of pretty flowers. For most of the other titles, from out-of-date How-to-Beat-the-Japanese business guides to useless reference manuals for obscure computers, even half a buck would be unreasonable. More disagreeable than any of these, though, and much harder to ignore, are the dictionaries. These debased reference works, which all the Wall Street booksellers stock in large quantities, are hardly worthy of their name, and may even provide some insight into the moral degeneracy of New York's financial community.

While eight bits may not seem like much to pay for "a comprehensive guide to the English language," a lexicon that promises to "improve the language skills of homemakers, students, and professionals," the slim paperback known as the New Concise Webster's (and published by Modern Publishing, NYC) is as likely to meet your dictionary needs as a plate of ravioli. The name, undoubtedly used in an attempt to dupe the inexperienced dictionary buyer, is of course meaningless: "Webster's," like "Roget's," is in the public domain, and ironically, when used on anything but the well-respected Merriam-Webster and Webster's New World dictionaries, is a virtual guarantee of an inferior product. Not that you need any extra clues in the case of the NCW: unidentified mystery symbols, ultra-minimalist definitions that give new meaning to the word concise (just as well, since it isn't defined in the dictionary), and an entry-count barely into five figures make this a reference book you'll want to hide well when company comes over.

Although the editors of the NCW shun all unnecessary frills--like syllabifications and etymologies of any kind--to focus all their energy on definitions, the dictionary will probably not have rival definers flying into a jealous rage. Terseness is valued by all lexicographers, but the NCW takes the idea perhaps one step too far. For example, flute is defined, somewhat ambiguously, as "a musical instrument which you blow." This doesn't cause any real conflicts, since the editors omit piccolo, oboe, and flugelhorn, and thus save themselves some fancy explaining. But the pithy definition of food--"what you eat"--is more troublesome. Given such vague guidelines, a well-meaning boy scout putting together a CARE package for Iranian earthquake victims, for example, might be fooled into including anything from a tab of acid to--well, use your imagination. And how will devotees of Ultra Slim-Fast and Carnation Instant Breakfast feel about having their favorite foods implicitly excluded? Other definitions are so misleadingly simple as to be alarmist ("a small animal that flies at night" = bat) or downright dangerous ("red spots on the skin" = rash).

In an apparent effort not to offend or intimidate any potential customers, the editors of the NCW scrupulously avoid dealing with some of the more controversial issues and concepts of our time. Existence is defined simply as "being"; the definition of time is given as "minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years"; and zero is "the number 0." The complexities of capital, even in the nerve center of world finance that is apparently the dictionary's primary market, are easily evaded: it's either "the chief city of a country" or "a large letter." Entries for sex (except in the harmless "gender" sense) and abortion are conspicuously absent. And while god is spelled with a lower-case g, this can (very plausibly) be attributed to sloppy typesetting.

Those with exotic tastes may not be able to resist skipping directly to the "X" section, but they're sure to be disappointed: the lone entry for the letter is x-ray--no xenon, xenophobia, xanthoma, or even Xmas. Missing too is xylophone, though this is easily explained: its definition ("a musical instrument which you hit"?) would have conflicted with that of drum. Also of interest to curiosity-seekers is the word set: well known for having the longest entry in the massive Oxford English Dictionary, it towers over most entries in the NCW as well, filling no less than half of one its large-print, two-inch-wide columns (though this does include the accompanying line drawings). And in a quaint Anglophilic touch, the word queue (noun and verb) is included, an extravagant move for a dictionary that omits gel, compact, and tuna.

The pronunciations in the NCW are generally accurate, though with so few words of more than two syllables there isn't much of a challenge. The occasional foray into polysyllabic territory sometimes proves to be more than the dictionary can handle: overnight is listed as rhyming with knit, for example; environment's r is stuck in the wrong place and its n is omitted altogether. (The inclusion of the shwa--a valuable symbol neglected even by some of the best dictionaries--is a pleasant surprise, however.) And just what do the little circles next to about half the entries mean? There's not a clue in the Guide on pages 4 and 5.

The NCW, in short, is a staggeringly bad dictionary. Its main strength, of course, is its $1 street price (its official cover price is actually $3.95), but if you want a dictionary that doesn't underestimate the intelligence of even first-graders (as this one does) you're better off--much better off--doing without breakfast for a week and picking up Merriam-Webster, the American Heritage, or Webster's New World. Those for whom money is no object may prefer Webster's Third New International ($89) or the awesome twenty-volume OED ($2500), and that's their right--the important thing is to leave the mountains of the New Concise Webster's for degenerate Wall Street professionals and those foolish enough to buy books from street vendors with licenses.

[Previously published in The Penumbra, late '80s]

Back to Dave Mandl's home page
Back to writings index