The perils of the dictionary

I missed an update due to a busy weekend followed by a bad attack of some viral thing or other (I can recommend not fainting from a standing position, btw).  You end up spending time writing clues, which opens you up to the odd things that are the dictionaries we use.

It’s fair to say that they are characters in themselves – while much is made of Chambers’ fondness for archaic Scottish words and eccentric definitions, you shouldn’t overlook the styles of ODE and Collins (however much my iPad apps for these tend to iron out differences).  It is often useful  to cross-refer, particularly if you suspect Chambers may be ploughing its own furrow.  Editors suggest this but it doesn’t always resolve matters.  Here’s what I stumbled on this week, trying to clue PIPPIN:


  1. Something or someone especially nice, attractive, good, etc (old slang)

Now what one person considers old slang another may still use – no one dictionary, ultimately, can be the arbiter.  What does ODE say?


  1. Informal, chiefly N. Amer. an excellent person or thing.

I was under the impression it was quite specifically English, though it seems to have graduated to current, at least, so this sent me scurrying to Collins:


Nothing in this line at all.  I went with the original clue in the end.  It does make it hard to resort to the dictionary on occasions, but I suppose we must.  There was the tale that C once misprinted the definition for ‘tutelary’ as ‘projecting’ but in only in some copies of the edition – at which point it turned up in a Misprints puzzle.  And was it ‘identify’ where the whole head-word was mislaid a few editions ago? This was before the furore the other year when highlighted words were erased through an unfortunate application of cut-and-not-paste.

We seemed to be happy to agree Chambers nods in those cases.  Other idiosyncrasies are more pernicious: I remember an editor who declined to accept S=small (Chambers had only M=medium at the time) though it was in both Collins and ODE (as was L=large) – in this instance, Chambers however perverse, was the rule.  Yet here was an everyday usage that the dictionary wasn’t capturing.  The Americans aren’t quite so precise and are readier to extract E and F from their dashboards, as well as a whole range of baseball abbreviations.  The Brits seem happier to argue that “Well, yes, it is used that way, but it’s not in my dictionary”.    

Anyway, missing an update meant I missed telling you of a Times puzzle earlier this week, but there’s a Times Quick Cryptic on 19 September (I don’t believe it is particularly dominated by the letter ar), and there’s also an Inquisitor coming up next weekend (15 September). The new puzzle this time round is from the Church Times and if you enjoy that one there’s a new one due on 28 September.


One comment

  1. As keepers of words, you really would think they would keep them better than they do. And be more appreciative of usage being variable across the globe, and not obsolete because they do not hear it regularly over coffee at Starbucks. The joy of language is having variation and thus choice, something modern society is losing as we dumb down. Strangely, and maybe ironically, globalisation seems to do nothing for harmonisation of dictionaries.

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