Size matters. Dictionary size (a thing for Dictionary Day)

Jagoda Ratajczak, kategoria: English readers are welcome

What else can a person obsessed with English do on a nice and lazy Sunday, if not have some five o’clock tea and watch „Keeping up appearances”? Celebrate Dictionary Day!  Here comes a piece on why paper dictionaries are indispensable no matter how big Internet resources are, why Google Translate is good for nothing, and once again, on the case which my friends remember as “Crucifying Species- Gate”, that is on why spending quite a few quid on a good dictionary is better than dishonor  :)

Polish version available here

How could I not mention that it’s Dictionary Day today? David Bowie called  Oxford Dictionary “a long poem about everything”, which suggest that you do not need to be a lexicographer or Heaven forbid, some kinky highbrow to appreciate and  enjoy using dictionaries. Using a dictionary is like watching videos on YouTube- you just want to check one thing, and you end up browsing through it for an hour.  When you spend “too much time” with a dictionary, you never waste time, though.  By accidentally “bumping” into words, not only do you make new discoveries, but also create an association map, something which is impossible when you simply type in a word into an Internet dictionary, or, woe to you, Google Translate. Learning how to use a dictionary (and I don’t mean learning the alphabet!), how to decipher the abbreviations and symbols used there, as well as how to interpret the information about the context, should be a must on any foreign language class. The point is not to manifest some strange disdain for modern technology with its Internet resources, but to equip people with knowledge on how language works and how dangerous the misuse of words might be.  No, dr. Google won’t tell you this.

Well, I do like looking things up on, but as I put my hands on paper dictionaries, I could virtually belt out Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing compares 2U”, which can be easily noticed by the pitiful state of the book shown above.  It is absolutely not true that dictionaries which are as big as this one are only good for obsessive dorks, while beginners can settle for pocket dictionaries.  A big dictionary will tell you everything you need to know about a word, which is exactly what a beginner needs.  Pocket dictionaries with their “summed-up” entries, often lacking significant information about the context or exemplary  sentences, will definitely not prevent you from making some spectacular mistakes. Take my legendary student whose intention was to write  a paper on “interbreeding species”, and who ended up with “crucifying species”. Had he had a decent dictionary, he would have read that the Polish verb “krzyżować” might be translated into either “crucify” or “cross “or cross/inter breed” , depending on the context. Actually, there is nothing more harmful for beginners than no information about the context and that is exactly what pocket dictionaries fail to provide you with.

A bilingual dictionary is the primary type of a dictionary you probably think of, but never underestimate the educational value of monolingual dictionaries, even if you do not consider yourself proficient. Reading entries in English is a great exercise in paraphrasing, or rather “trying to say what you mean even if you do not know all the words you need”, as well as a very educational guessing game. Of course, trying to figure out the meaning of such words as “epithelium” or “cilium” without even slightest idea of what the thing might be, is not the most rewarding activity for non-advanced learners. No matter how advanced you are, though, there is one indisputable advantage of any good, big and paper dictionary- its reliability.  When in doubt, go to Oxford/PWN, and you shall feel relief that no pl.bab.las will ensure.

Christmas are coming, a good dictionary should be on a wish list of anybody who thinks seriously about language learning. There are very few things which shock me more than hearing that a language leaner, or, may God have mercy on their soul, a philology student doesn’t have a good dictionary at home! No, no dictionary publisher paid me for this post. I wish, they did, though!


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