A Few Dictionaries for Dictionary Day

Three years ago I first learned that October 16 is Dictionary Day, at least in the United States, where they honor Noah Webster on that date, the date of his birth. It's a nice holiday, and being a translator, I'm quite happy to adopt it. It's just over a fortnight after International Translators Day (September 30), and it's also near, and on some years even on, Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday marking the beginning of a new cycle of Torah reading – a holiday celebrating reading.

My grandfather was a translator, and at his home one of the larger unabridged dictionaries was a permanent resident of the coffee table. Sooner or later discussions would turn to language, etymology, semantics, etc. and then he would turn to the dictionary, turn the pages, and find what he needed to make his point, or "win" an argument.

On this dictionary day I'd like to recommend a few dictionaries I like. If I remember to do it next year as well, it might even become a tradition.

Thesaurus of Idioms and Phrases – English – Hebrew – English – Neri Sevenir Gabriel.

The first time I opened this dictionary, my first reaction was "what a wonderful database design" (this sort of comment comes up a lot more often when I wear my other professional hat). The central part of this dictionary is divided into 115 short sections, each dedicated to idioms relating to a particular topic. The equivalent Hebrew and English idioms are shown facing each other. Hebrew on the right, English on the left. This tends to come naturally where one language is written right-to-left and the other left-to-right.  There are also two extensive indexes, one Hebrew, one English, where individual words can be looked up, as well as word pairs and phrases, with a reference to the section and line where the relevant phrase appear. Idioms appear in many texts, some are deeply ingrained in us, we don't even notice we use them, some writers, and speakers, are more aware of their usage of idioms and craft them into their texts, and almost every translator knows that failing to notice an idiom, or even worse, translating an idiom literally, instead of finding an equivalence, sticks out like a sore thumb in a translation, regardless of how well the rest of the text may be rendered. A literally translated idiom can make the text sound like an alien language.

A dictionary that might actually mention alien languages is Brave New Words – The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by  Jeff Prucher. This dictionary defines terms commonly used in science fiction, and also words with specific meaning in the science fiction culture, that is, the fandom. Prucher notes that some terms in the dictionary have never appeared in any other dictionary, other terms have not appeared in other dictionaries in the specific sense relevant to science fiction. Prucher reasearches SF terminology for the OED, and maintains a blog where he posts updates about sf words in the OED.  He acknowledges a long list of names, including Erin McKean (Wordnik), and Grant Barett, a lexicographer and co-host of A Way With Words , a radio show about language (also distributed as a podcast). The latter acknowledgement has to do with the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Since I regularly listen to the show, I thought I'd mention it. The dictionary has entries for specific terms, such as phaser, and tardis. It has entries for words that spread far beyond the original readership of their books of origin, such as grok, and ansible. It uses citations from both the OED and HDAS, and traces words back to their earliest known origin, including non-print sources which came up in research, such as nanite, first  used in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, or Klingon, first used in the Classic Star Trek series in the episode An Errand of Mercy. These are instances where the OED would use the first print source, so the OED entry for Klingon cites the James Blish adaptation of a Star Trek episode. This dictionary is both useful and fun to browse.

The last dictionary in this post is Laurence Urdang's Dictionary of Difficult Words. Urdang was a lexicographer, and the founding editor of Verbatim Magazine. He points out in his forward that none of the words in the dictionary are difficult once you know them, however, there are a lot of low frequency words that do not readily spring to mind when encountered in print. Once you look them up you might realize that the definition was familiar. Thus it's really a dictionary of uncommon words.

Enjoy your dictionaries!

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