What is the Best English Dictionary?

atkins bookshelf wordsIt has been over a decade since the last edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (the 4th edition was published in 2000 and updated in 2006). You would think that with the ubiquity of all-digital dictionaries lurking in desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices that the hefty printed dictionary was all but extinct. But there it is in all its wordly splendor, weighing in at 7 pounds: 2,112 pages pages, over 210,000 entries, over 4,000 illustrations, and sporting the traditional and helpful thumb index. (Compare to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th edition, that contains over 500,000 definitions in 3,472 pages in two volumes.) The cover features a tagline that concretely justifies spending money on — and time with — a dictionary: “You are Your Words. Make the Most of Them.” Well said and absolutely true. Beyond being judged initially by appearance, people are judged by how they express themselves, and writers are judged by the words they use.

The editors of the AHD are a bit more hip than their counterparts across the pond, hence the early inclusion of colorful and sometimes very American vernacular. The new edition includes new words like crowdsourcing, exoplanet, kiteboarding, ginormous, LOL, slider, and wifty. For obvious reasons, don’t expect to find the words ipad, Kindle, or Nook in this up-to-date dictionary (the editors know where to draw the line).

The joy of owning a printed dictionary is that the entire English language (or at least most of it) can be held in yours hands. I generally look up a word at least once a day, and the way to expand your vocabulary quickly is by serendipity — looking at the words around your target words. A dictionary should never be read cover to cover (unless, of course, you are Ammon Shea, who read the entire OED in one year — more on that later), but it should be browsed or explored from time to time. The beauty of the English language is that it is alive and constantly evolving, adapting and the printed dictionary is merely a snapshot of the lexicographic record at one moment. Seize the moment and make the most of these words.

Read related post: The Most Common Words in English

Best Books for Writers

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011).

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