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The Canadian Oxford Dictionary

by Katherine Barder, ed.

Five years, five lexicographers working full time, and here it is – the new Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and it’s a treat. The editors sent along a challenge with the review package I received. “Does your Canadian dictionary have a distinctly Canadian definition for–?” they asked (heavily implying that it would not), and supplied a list, single-spaced, three columns, 10 pages, of words and phrases, including hangashore, blasty, cube van, exactor, kétaine, la-la land, mangia-cake, not on your nelly, pencil crayon, wine gum, and yaffle (see below). No, my other Canadian dictionary doesn’t have them. I once searched vainly through all my dictionaries for exactor, and here it is: “a bet on the first- and second-place finishers in a race, specifying their order of finish.” The Canadian Oxford has earned its keep on my shelf already.

To a word lover, there’s nothing like a new dictionary. It goes straight to your head: it’s the Nile, it’s the Tower of Pisa; it’s the smile on the Mona Lisa (all of these items are identified in the Canadian Oxford). It’s a melody from a symphony by Strauss, it’s a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, it’s Mickey Mouse (mouselike cartoon character created by Walt Disney, d. 1966).

Oh, excuse me, I got carried away (Porter, Cole [Albert] 1891–1964, U.S. songwriter), but you see, this dictionary is an encyclopedia, too. Take the page of the Canadian OD that Mickey Mouse appears on – it has MI5, Micah, Roland Michener, King Michael of Romania, Michelangelo, Michelet, A.A. Michelson, Michigan, and Michoacán; also microbrewery, microcosm, and mickey (Cdn; a half bottle of liquor, usually 375mL). This is going to be a very valuable reference book. Where else would you find such piquant information as, for example, the joint entry under Waller, which notes that Waller, Edmund (1606–87), English poet, wrote the lyric “Go, lovely rose,” and Waller, Fats (1904–43), U.S. jazz pianist and songwriter, wrote the song “Honeysuckle Rose”?

Comparison with the Concise Oxford reveals that it is the base from which the editorial team worked; the wording of definitions is taken straight from that text, except for the Canadian terms, of course. And there are a few other little changes. Katherine Barber, the editor-in-chief, has chosen to go with the flow of language, allowing some usages that to me are not elegant.

Obtuse, for example, is defined as “1 a dull-witted, slow to understand. b difficult to understand; obscure. …” Sense a is correct, but sense b, which is not in the Concise Oxford, is (to me, and many other writers on language) just a blunder, a usage that may have arisen by confusion with obscure or abstruse. The word obtuse, in geometry, denotes an angle of more than 90 degrees and less than 180, that is, not a sharp point. It’s used metaphorically to describe a mind that is dull and unpenetrating; its opposite, acute, also a geometrical term, is used approvingly of a keen intellect. The reason I don’t like its use to mean “hard to understand” is that it makes nonsense of the underlying metaphor. The opposite of a sharp knife is a dull knife, a blade that won’t cut, not one that can’t be cut. It seems the wrong thing to me to lend the authority of a dictionary listing to such degradations of meaning.

Barber has anticipated my objection. “The only way to produce a dictionary,” she says, “is to describe usage.” A dictionary is a sourcebook for conventional or normal usage, not correct usage. Thus she allows the use of media as a “mass noun with a singular verb” and defends it as the way most people use it. In this, she goes farther than the 1995 Concise, which prevaricates, stating that the usage is “common” but “not generally accepted.” Perhaps we should do as the French do. My Petit Robert lists média and médium as separate words. Média, a singular noun, it dates to 1965; the plural is given as médiasMais – on ne respecte rien,” he replied.) What will future generations of readers make of McLuhan? Will his epigram become “The media is the message”? I think there should be a grandmother clause: media as a singular shouldn’t be in the dictionary until all the people who are offended by it are dead.

Barber deplores the attitude of mind that cannot accept that language changes. She quotes the first dictionary maker, Dr. Johnson, who says that any lexicographer who believes he can “embalm the language, and secure it from corruption and decay,” is to be “derided,” because to do so he would have to “change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.” Barber quotes also James Murray, the first editor of the vast OED, who wrote that English is “in a state of slow but incessant dissolution and renovation.”

Well, of course. How could anyone not agree? (Although Johnson does say that it is folly, vanity, and affectation that bring about the changes.)

“Another complaint people make,” Barber adds, “is that language is deteriorating from some previous golden age, and that dictionaries should preserve old meanings….” She then asks whether we would want her to insist on usages that were standard in Chaucer’s time. Well, I am a crank, but not quite to that extent. In fact, I think a “golden age” of language could be usefully defined as a period when the most people can understand each other as clearly as possible over the greatest reaches of time and space. In medieval England a difference of a hundred years or a hundred miles would land you in a place where the language was barely comprehensible. The English we speak now has changed less in the 400 years since Shakespeare’s time than his had changed in the 200 years since Chaucer’s, and the reasons for that, I would suggest, are printed books, literacy, dictionaries, and universal education, all of which combined to produce an unprecedented slowdown in language change, with immense benefit to civilization. A dictionary maker may protest as much as she likes that she only describes, and would never presume to prescribe, but the very existence of dictionaries is prescriptive. People do consider them “authoritative,” and a good thing, too. Katherine Barber should give herself some credit.

She deserves both credit and congratulations for the learned and witty Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Who would not love a dictionary that replaces the staid last entry in the Concise Oxfordzymurgy – with zzz (“interjection used to imitate the sound of a person sleeping or snoring”)?


Reviewer: Doris Cowan

Publisher: Oxford University Press


Price: $39.95

Page Count: 744 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-19-541120-X1

Released: June

Issue Date: 1998-6

Categories: Reference