Four Dictionaries

Every book has a story. This is true, even of economics text books. Some books have more exciting stories than others. For example, despite the quality of its contents, my copy of CS Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism has not really had any adventures yet, unless it had some on the way to the book store. Others, such as my coverless copy of She, by H. Rider Haggard, that my Uncle Bob gave to me, have doubtless had many adventures, although I do not know them.

And although each of our 22 dictionaries has a story, from my granddad’s spineless dictionary to Jennifer’s Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary, allow me to tell you the stories of my favourite four, The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, A Latin Dictionary by Lewis & Short (henceforth Lewis & Short), and A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell & Scott (henceforth LSJ).

As many of you know, I am a big fan of talking and spelling Canadian. I esteem the time-honoured tradition, not only of -our but also, I have realised, other aspects of Canadian spelling and speaking, like drinking pop, not soda, for example. I have practised the practice of Canadian spelling and speaking all my life, and I remember my judgement failing only once, on account of the NIV translation of the Bible being American and dropping an E, creating judgment.

As a result of my Canadianness in orthography and locution, I was quite pleased that Oxford decided to publish a Canadian dictionary, one with all the proper spellings as well as words such as Persian (Cdn (NW Ont.) an oblong doughnut covered with pink or white icing). I have for many years desired a large dictionary with definitions, pronunciations, and basic etymology (part of me wants the 20-volume OED, but I hope the spiritual discipline of simplicity will save me from it if I ever have enough money). So, with both converging in one place, I knew what dictionary I wanted. The only problem with large dictionaries is their price. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary costs $59.95 new; thus, when I worked at Chapters, I would still have to pay $41.97–a bit pricey.

Then, one day, my dreams were realised. There it sat, amidst other dictionaries that were of little or no interest to me, marked with a flashy, happy 30% off sticker. As an employee, I would get an additional 10% on top of that, thus rendering the dictionary $35.97. Jennifer and I were engaged at this point, and we felt that a good quality dictionary was a lifetime investment and worth $35.97. So I decided to buy one.

And then, shock of shocks, the 30% off stickers were gone! It wasn’t on sale after all! Disheartened, I kept a glimmer of hope that one day it would be on sale again. Nevertheless, hope is never entirely gone for a Hoskin. One day while gazing longingly at the dictionaries, I saw that my gem was once again marked with a glistening orange 30% off sticker. I was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, so I took it over to a computer, and went to see what the system had to say about this state of affairs. The computer did not list it at 30% off. I mentioned this to a co-worker, and she informed me that a number of titles that were on sale in her section had not made their way into the computer system but were, nevertheless, on sale. This was undoubtedly the case with the dictionary I craved.

So I bought it. I stood in line, happily holding the blue, shrink-wrapped book with its red maple leaf in the bottom right-hand corner. I handed it to the cashier. She noticed that it hadn’t come up as on-sale in the computer, a problem that had been occurring of late. So the GM of the store was called over, and he typed in a special code so the book would be 30% off. And then my employee discount was applied. My employee discount that was supposed to get me an additional 10% off the price of the dictionary. But something went wrong. The cashier asked for $25-something. I asked if that was right. She said that the computer had given me the full 30% on top of the initial 30% off. I paid, feeling somewhat guilty, as Jennifer found me in line. And then I was sent on my way with a dictionary for 60% off.

That was a good purchase, and completely unintentionally.

When I started working at Chapters, I was working in the Teen, Humour, Games, Sports, Transportation, Computers, Reference, Business section. One of the few items that interested me in this section was in “Other Reference”, a tome entitled Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. I would lovingly arrange copies of it on the shelves and admire the Mediaevalesque unicorn on the cover. We had the seventeenth edition, revised by John Ayto. One of the alluring features of this dictionary was the Foreword by Terry Pratchett, a fantasy novelist whose Discworld novels are three riots and seven-eights (thus, almost four riots, and not merely “a riot”).

But, alas, this dictionary was $69.95, well beyond my price range. And as long as I worked at Chapters, it never went on sale.

And what, you ask, is so exciting about this dictionary besides a Foreword by Terry Pratchett that I could have read while no one was looking? Allow me to give you a sample of its glory:


Cries of animals. A special word is used for the cry, call or sound of many animals, and it would be wrong or even ludicrous to use these words indiscriminately. Thus, a dog does not ‘buzz’ and a bee does not ‘bark’. The following are appropriate words for each:

Apes gibber
Asses bray
Bears growl
Bees hum
Beetles drone
Bitterns boom
Blackbirds and thrushes whistle
. . . [right down to]
Wolves howl

What is not more exciting than a creature such as this for a verbivore, for an aspiring philologist (lover of words, not a studier of love)? It even, under cross, has a page devoted to types of crosses! Under Famous Last Words, the entry is similar to that of animal cries, and gives almost five and a half pages of examples of famous last words, such as William Wordsworth: “God bless you! Is that you, Dora?”

Nevertheless, such was the price of this book that never could I justify purchasing it.

And then one day, fortune’s tide changed.

In Ottawa, there is a small chain of bookstores called Benjamin Books. They have a location on Osgoode St. full of used books as well as text books that various U of O profs order there rather than at the university bookstore. They also have at least two other locations in malls. The locations in malls have publisher’s clearing house and university press titles for up to 90% off list price. I frequently frequented Benjamin Books in my time in Ottawa.

One day, whilst randomly browsing the store in the Rideau Centre (from which I have quite affordably acquired such treasures as Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf, The Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible, and The Barbarian Conversion amongst others), I came upon none other than Brewer’s for $20-some dollars! Quickly I snatched it from the table, gloating to myself about my great luck, cunning, and good Scots eye for a deal. I have treasured it ever since.

The third dictionary is Lewis & Short. This is the sort of dictionary that, unlike Brewer’s, a philologist does not so much want as need, although want it I did. There is only one Latin-English dictionary superior to it, and that is the Oxford Latin Dictionary (OLD)–reputed to be the best bilingual dictionary on the market. But the OLD is so large it basically requires a shelf unto itself, due to both its height and massive weight. Were I to have one, I do not know where I would put it. Nevertheless, I was getting the feeling that my Chambers-Murray would no longer cut it, and that it would soon be incumbent upon me, as an MA student in Classics, to acquire either the OLD or Lewis & Short.

My investigations into dictionaries this fall told me that Lewis & Short would cost over $250 at full price, the OLD over $450. Of course, one looks around for these things, and I was resolved that, at some point after the wedding (when life had settled a bit and I had my OSAP), I would go out and buy one of these two as well as the LSJ (the Greek one).

Such was not to be the case, for at our present-opening party, Jennifer and I were delighted and pleased to open up a gift from a couple of former professors at U of O and find Lewis & Short in its blue cover with gold writing on the spine waiting for us to crack it open. It has been a valuable resource, for if it lacks anything, I have yet to find it lacking. Each page is three columns of Latin words, giving their English definitions and various places where they occur in Latin literature. It is very thorough and very welcome as I translate Vergil, Cicero, Seneca, and Livy, defining Latin from

A, a, indecl. n. (sometimes joined with littera), the first letter of the Latin alphabet, corresponding to the a, α of the other Indo-European languages: A primum est: hinc incipiam, et quae nomina ab hoc sunt, Lucil. ap. Terent. Scaur. p. 2255 . . .


zythum, i, n., = ζῦθος, a kind of malt-liquor among the Egyptians, Plin. 22, 25, 82, 164; Col. 10, 116; Dig. 33, 6, 9 praef.

It also has a comprehensive list of abbreviations, thankfully.

Last, but most certainly not least, is the LSJ. As noted above, I knew I would probably end up acquiring the LSJ at some point this year. It was all a question of when. Well, this term, I have been finding my Intermediate Greek Lexicon inadequate for much of the poetry we are translating. Most people learn the Attic dialect of fourth-century Athens when they learn Greek, the language of Plato and the tragedians. My old lexicon is geared mainly toward such people. But in Greek Poetry class, we have been translating mostly archaic and Hellenistic poets, along with 50 lines of The Odyssey per meeting (for which I have A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect). Frequently I have been unable to find words in the smaller lexicon.

Shortly into the term, we were informed by our Greek prof that there is absolutely no excuse for not finding a word, because if it’s not in your dictionary, it’s in LSJ, and we should all have LSJ anyway. Well, we’re mostly paupers, so that’s not exactly the most realistic possibility, since the U of T bookstore sells the LSJ for around $250. I tried using the version on the Perseus Project, but since it’s only searchable, not browsable, you need to know at least part of the root word to find a definition, you can’t just scan the pages where you think the root ought to be found until you find it. As well, the Perseus server can be painfully slower, sometimes doesn’t load properly, and is often down for hours or days at a time. Needless to say, I was finding this option painful.

I mentioned my woes to Jennifer, and she said I should go buy one, then. I pointed out the price issue, and she said that I should search online. So I searched online. I searched amazon, abe, and chapters. And the cheapest I found, rather than $250, was $112, from alibris, being sold through chapters. So I bought it. And then came the waiting game.

Every day I would check the porch at the front of our building for a dictionary-sized box (this thing is too massive to fit in the mailbox). And for weeks, it did not come. Then on January 30, Jennifer and I went out to the Keg (courtesy of a gift card we got as a wedding present). On the way home, I said to her, “So, did you check the mail today?”

“I didn’t check the mailbox,” she said (slyly).

So we got home, and I checked the mail, noticing a distinct lack of Greek lexica on the front porch, although SIM did send me a letter acknowledging the fact that they received our donation for my aunt and uncle in Angola. Then we went around back and down into our cozy, little basement apartment. And as I entered, I saw on my desk, peaking out from behind Sven who guards the way, a very classy-looking, ginormous tome with a black dust-jacket and white lettering, the Oxford crest emblazoned on the front and, there, at the top:

H. G. Liddell and R. Scott
With a Revised Supplement

Jennifer told me that when she got home earlier that day, she opened the door, and whump! it fell on the ground. Immediately she thought, “Oh no, I killed it!” Then she hefted the weighty package and brought it in, knowing full well what would be within.

Now I am the proud possessor of the LSJ. This is the most comprehensive Greek-English lexicon in existence. It has xlv pages of prelminaries, then 2042 pages of the dictionary proper. At the end is the 1996 supplement with xxxi pages of preliminaries and 320 pages of dictionary entries. An entry at random:

λᾰγῷς, α, ον, contr. for λαγώϊος, of the hare, κρέα Ar. Ach. 1110; τρίχες Plu. 2.138f; Ï„á½° λ. (sc. κρέα) hare’s flesh, Hp.Vict.2.46: and generally, dainties, delicacies, ζῆν ἐν πᾶσι λαγῴοις Ar.V.709, cf. Ach. 1006, Pax 1196, Telecl.32, Pl.Com.174.10, etc.

Truth be told, this is not the most exciting entry in the dictionary, but the more exciting ones are way too long, and every time I went for a random one, I got something like this. Now then, you may be wondering what all the abbreviations and extra Greek words mean. These are examples of the word in use in Greek literature, to help give its nuance. If one wished to look up these references, all he’d have to do is flip to the beginning of the dictionary to section V on page xliii, “General List of Abbreviations.” So, Ar. = Aristophanes, the Athenian comic playwright. Ach. is one of his works, so we have to consult section I, “Authors and Works” on page xvi, and find Aristophanes. Here we’ll find a list of the abbreviations of his works. Thus, Ach. = Acharnenses. 1110 is the line number. And so forth throughout. Eventually, one gets used to the author’s names, and can sometimes guess which work is cited.

Now, these abbreviations for Greek authors and their works are very important, because they set the standard for scholarship. If someone in an article or in a scholarly edition quotes a Greek work, these abbreviations will be used. All the scholar need do is grab the LSJ and look it up.

Finally, this dictionary is great because it has so many words. Anything I’ll ever want is in here. And often, the text I’m using is quoted in the entry. All the ways of using the words are used, so I’ll never lack for assistance in preparing for class.

So these are my four favourite dictionaries and how I got them and why they are cool. Every book you own has a story — where it came from, who owned it before you, how you got it, what you’ve done with it, what you use it for, when you read it, where you read it, when you plan to read it. And every book you own, especially when coupled with its story, says something about you, about what you enjoy, about how you spend your time, about what you value. 22 dictionaries say something about Jennifer and I, and these four say some things in particular about me.

If you have read this far, well done. I have two more notes regarding dictionaries, though. First, we have twenty-three, not twenty-two, as previously stated. Jennifer realised that I hadn’t counted the Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Second, before too long, we shall have only 20. We have a surfeit of dictionaries; in the name of simplicity, we shall eliminate the Collins Latin minidictionary, and the Pocket Oxford Latin & Greek dictionaries.


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