Book Review

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary

2386 pages (1991)


This is the complete text of the 30-volume OED, possibly the most highly respected dictionary of the English language, shrunk down to a single, awkwardly-sized 14 x 9 1/2 x 3 inch volume, weighing in at 12 1/2 pounds or so (according to my bathroom scale). Each page consists of nine of the original pages of the OED. To fit such a large reference work into a single volume, the text was made unreadably small - 30 lines/inch, or about 330 lines/page. The book comes with a "magnifier", which is more like half a crystal ball, to enable viewing of the text. The magnifier is better suited for divination than magnification, as it exhibits severe spherical distortion. The book would probably have sold more copies if they had put 4 original pages per page, and made it into two volumes. (In fact, this was tried at one point).

Small print size is not the only problem with the Compact OED, however. The Dictionary itself suffers from serious bias in its selection of words. Although many words from linguistics and literature are present, the selection of technical terms and abbreviations is woefully inadequate. For example, a cursory search revealed that these (relatively) common words, which someone might reasonably wish to look up, are not to be found:

apodization, calmodulin, Chunom, Coomassie, crontab, etendue, Guillain-Barre syndrome, hacker (in the computer sense), homeotic, homeobox, Klingon, Marquardt, mucolipid, NP-complete, oligonucleotide, patch-clamp, PCR, RTD, sinc, transgenic, ultrametric, and xor.

Of course, very few chemical names (such as 5,6,7-trihydroxy-2-(4-hydroxyphenyl)- 4H-1-benzopyran-4-one) are present either. (Actually, the common name of its glucuronide derivative, scutellarin, is there).

On the other hand, disciplines such as law are well-represented, albeit with a decidedly British bias. These words are all in the dictionary: res ipsa loquitur, assumpsit, locus poenitentiae, mens rea (but not U.C.C. or Lemon test), as are words one might expect to find in an unabridged dictionary, like antidisestablishmentarianism and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.


Although the book contains many literary allusions and make extensive use of literary devices such as alliteration, the writing style is very matter-of-fact. However, the character development in the book is quite weak, almost as bad as that in the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Moreover, the story, while interesting, has many unpredictable twists and turns and subplots; but the main plot, although it ends on the note of an optimistic vision for the future with

zyxt (Kentish) 2nd. sing. ind. pres. of SEE v.,
is something of a letdown. I was hoping the authors would continue with the theme of
ywympillit, wrapped. 1513 Douglas, Aenis xi, xi. Ywympillit [orig. clausam] in this bark tho did he take Hys 3ong douchtyr.
in Chapter 25, which is just left hanging, leaving the reader hungering for more, leaving this family tragedy unresolved.


There is also a multi-CD-ROM version, which is searchable and has a number of useful software features. However, I was not thrilled with the prospect of finding a Windows computer, booting it up, installing the appropriate CD, and waiting for the program to start each time I wanted to look up a word, so I did not test this version.

In summary, although the OED is an impressive lexicographic achievement, English possesses a larger language space than even the OED can encompass. The work of lexicographers may no longer be proscriptive, but sadly their (perhaps understandable) inability to keep up with contemporary technical English makes much of their work more and more irrelevant.

Disclaimer: I have not yet read this book in its entirety.