Book Review: Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

It seems lately that we have been reviewing books that are not in and of themselves bad or especially flawed, but whose utility is limited. The market for books on words and language is a crowded one, yet publishers seem intent on pumping out books that do not fit a particular niche or offer anything new or different.

This month we review yet another. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, edited by Glynnis Chantrell, is a book that has no obvious flaws. The scholarship is uniformly excellent, relying on the extensive lexicographic files of Oxford Press. There are over 12,000 entries, which give the book considerable scope. Yet, in reading it one continually wonders if anyone would actually ever find this book useful.

The chief problem is the words selected. The 12,000 entries all cover common words in the standard vocabulary. There are no phrases, no slang, no jargon, and no profanity. In short, the book omits most of the words that people are curious about. The alphabetical arrangement is not conducive to conveying information on etymological or linguistic patterns. There are some attempts to describe derivation in sections called “Wordbuilding,” but these are simply lists of prefixes and suffixes under a different name and format.

The entries are fairly compact, typically running from six to eight lines. They are in plain English with few abbreviations or other etymological jargon. While this makes the information very accessible to the average reader, it also means is that each entry contains little more than one will find in the etymological notes of a good collegiate dictionary. Compare this to the approach taken by Merriam Webster in their 1991 New Book of Word Histories. Merriam Webster chose to have fewer entries (1,500), but the entries are longer, often half a page or more, and go into extensive detail.

This is really a bit of a shame. Oxford Press has gloriously rich files on word histories. Usually this information only makes it into publication in clipped and condensed form. A book that really delved into the history of words would be a joy. It would be the first time much of this research ever saw the light of day and it would provide insight into how the Oxford lexicographers make their etymological calls. Instead we get part of a collegiate dictionary.

Our recommendation would be to skip this one. It is not interesting enough to read, and if you are looking for etymological information on a particular word look in a good collegiate dictionary. And if you do not have one, your money would be much better spent getting one than on this book.

Hardcover, 420 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0198631219, October 2002, $25.00.

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