A dictionary for word lovers

A dictionary for word lovers

When the British handed over power to India in 1947, they also left behind an English-based education system. The medium of instruction was English. Grammar was synonymous with Wren & Martin. The dictionary of choice was either Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD), now 100 years old, or Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (CTCD). The Chambers series released its 12th edition on 12 August this year.

Chambers is the kind of dictionary with which people who like to play with words begin to feel an affinity. Its vocabulary is so vast and variegated that crossword fans find it a valuable resource.

With 620,000 words, phrases and definitions, it has a bigger coverage than most single-volume dictionaries of comparable size. It admits archaic words, unconventional creations and slang. I remember the day one of my classmates unearthed the word “sondeli" in his Chambers. It is a Kannada word for a small rat. A few days later he came up with another Indian word, “bandicoot", from Telugu pandi kokku, meaning pig-rat. Chambers has a place for obscure, weird, even outlandish words from world English. Tracking words such as “jobernowl" and “humgruffin" is a part of the delight in using Chambers.

The Chambers brothers, William and Robert, were born into a well-to-do family. But their fortunes declined. Their father, trying to help French officer-prisoners in his town, lost heavily and the family had to work for a living.

They started their own printing business. In 1832, they published a weekly magazine, Chambers Journal. Its circulation touched 84,000, bringing to an end their days of hardship. Their first dictionary was published in 1861 and six years later appeared Chambers Etymological Dictionary. This was released again in 1872 as Chambers English Dictionary. The turning point came in 1901, when they published CTCD. The name was changed to Chambers English Dictionary in 1988, and finally in 1992 to the present name, Chambers Dictionary. There is still some confusion with the names. The authentic sequel to CTCD is the Chambers Dictionary of 1992, not Chambers 21st Century Dictionary.

Word lovers who want to spend some time enjoying curiosities of the English language will find abundant scope in the 12th edition. The authors have saved space by giving very short definitions of everyday words and reducing the number of illustrative examples. New words in the dictionary come from technology, Internet and the environment. Paywall, crowdsourcing, e-waste, green collar, miniblog and upcycle are examples. From other fields come “kakistocracy", government by the worst, and toxic asset.

One feature that users look for and enjoy is the occasional humorous definition of a word. Johnson led the way with his definition of “oats": “grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people". Chambers (1908) pokes fun at Baboo English, which is said to be “more copious than correct, with long and learned words often most ingeniously misapplied".

Some definitions mildly target women. A noose is “a snare or bond generally, especially, hanging or marriage". Waistline marks the waist, “but is not fixed by anatomy in women’s fashions". After referring to the atomic blasts in Bikini atoll, the author says, “The bikini’s effects on men were reputed to be similar." Widely quoted is the meaning of éclair: “a cake long in shape but short in duration". The verb “to fish" is defined thus: “...catch anything that may be likened to a fish, such as seals, compliments, information or husbands".

Chambers does not use any special phonetic alphabet to represent pronunciation. The English alphabet of 26 letters, with some diacritical marks, is good enough and users can easily understand. Seen against the trappings of scholarship and research that mark every page of academic dictionaries, I would feel more at ease with Chambers.

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

Comment at otherviews@livemint.com