Oxford English Dictionary for Schools

(Oxford University Press, 2006): 928pp, £6.56 (pbk), ISBN 0 19 911238 X.

Reviewed by Deborah Yuill

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My interest in lexicography goes back to employment on the COBUILD project in the late 1980s. This was the first learner dictionary to use a corpus and real examples, elements that are now the norm in dictionary-publishing circles.

This dictionary (aimed at 11- to 14-year-olds) is no exception, and it draws its excellent range of examples (called 'citations') from an array of authors, genres and nationalities, from Dickens to J K Rowling, and from classic novels to travel writing and biographies.

The increase in the number of second-language speakers in schools means it is an interesting time to produce a dictionary for this age group. However, apart from good coverage of all the major religions and their festivals, I could not find much evidence that this had been a consideration for the compilers.

Coverage

The blurb says the content 'is linked to the national curriculum', and it is terrific for subject-specific terms. Entries such as cephalopod, histogram, rinderpest, keyword, buffer (ICT) and peptide are well chosen.

There are some missed opportunities however, such as the failure to distinguish musical and general meanings of crescendo (defined only as 'a gradual increase in loudness'), and an absence of significant IT terms such as pen drive, Java, bot, chatroom and even geek.

Definitions

Definitions are sound and succinct, and anticipate the likely context of a word well. For example, the definition for hemlock ('a poisonous plant, or the poison made from it') suggests a natural context in which the word might be found.

I would have liked better coverage of present participles and gerunds such as nestling, which only has the nominal meaning, and paring (which is absent altogether). A reader will not necessarily connect these with their respective verbs, and they are a frequent source of error for non-native speakers.

Use of examples

Although the use of both constructed examples and citations is good, it's not always immediately clear what is being exemplified. The daemon seemed suspicious and cast around as if she'd sensed an intruder is illustrating 'cast around', not 'daemon' as one might expect.

Similarly, For a second, Mr Sir's pain seemed to recede. He took several long, deep breaths is a nice example, but it is illustrating 'breaths', not 'recede'. I would have preferred edited citations without unusual words that in my experience halt readers in their tracks.

Register and usage

The weakest area was register and contextual information, something that is particularly useful to second-language learners, but which helps all pupils use the dictionary for encoding. Examples of words that needed contextual information are inebriated, madden, sputum, cauldron and hidebound.

Information on informality or unacceptability is less sparse, so peckish, hog (verb), squaw, mingy and tucker all have clear labels. I'd have preferred more of this and less on usage, such as the obscure discussion of the plurality or otherwise of graffiti, which has no fewer than three examples.

Cultural information

There are some nice touches, including etymology, word families (for example, at tree we get the related adjective arboreal), and confusables, such as internment and interment. But closer inspection confirmed my suspicions that in cultural terms, this dictionary remains in the 20th century.

Do 14-year-olds really need to be told that they 'can still use gay to mean cheerful but it sounds old-fashioned'? And the bizarre description of sarong as 'a strip of cloth worn like a kilt by men and women of Malaya and Java' convinced me that there is still a way to go before OUP fully acknowledges the presence of a more diverse society.

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