Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tuesday Temptation: Dictionaries and Thesaurus

PHS Editor and Harlequin Historical Author Michelle Styles reveals her addiction to  dictionaries.

I'm an author and I love words and phrases. I love knowing what they mean and what they used to mean. I love finding out the stories behind phrases. Or being able to categorise words in different ways. In short I love dictionaries.  I still have my well thumbed Webster's Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus from when I was growing up. But my private library boasts of a number of dictionaries.
 One of the great things about meeting other authors is discovering that I am not alone.
At the RWA Librarian's Lunch Blaze Author Jacquie D'Alessandro and I had a long conversation about the wonderfulness that is the Oxford English Dictionary. One of Jacqui's best Christmas presents ever was receiving the entire 20 volumes of the OED from her husband and children. For some reason, her mother-in-law couldn't understand it. But there again, her mother-in-law is not an author. The complete OED remains on my list for books I'd love to get. In the meantime, I have the Concise OED and the OED for Writers and Editors.
Just before going to the RWA, I'd taken delivery of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. Forty years in the making, it is the definitive etymology of words. If you want to know what a word meant in a particular time period, this gives the answer. recently I had cause to look up  corset. A word meaning corset as an underwear garment was not used before 1628 and corset itself is a late 18th century word. It is one of those books that I intend to use quickly and end up spending an hour or more because one word leads on another and my attention gets caught. (This is also why I prefer printed dictionaries to ebook dictionaries as I love making connections. I do have an electronic dictionary but it gets used more when I need to check spellings.)
Another dictionary that ends up as treasure is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. First printed in the late 19th century, Brewer's gives the meaning to all sorts of phrases, rather than individual words. So for example, Gretna Green Marriage is there. Or I open to English (among other things) English cap -- see French Letter, along with definitions for English disease, Englishman, Englishman's home is his castle An,  English Pale The etc. Brewer's is a book where you inevitably end up spending more time than you thought on. Opening at random,  Grand Old Party , The  -- a name dating from around1876 for the Republican Party, the more conservative of the two main US political parties. It is often abbreviated to GOP. As Terry Pratchett said about the book -- it is not what you are looking for, it is much more interesting!
I also have a Flip Dictionary for when I know what I want to say but can't think up the word. It enables me to find a specific word when it is trembling on my tongue. For example a male elephant is a bull elephant.
Then there is the  Random House Word Menu which lists words in groups. So for example, all words pertaining to geography or architecture. This can help when characters are passionate about a certain hobby or belong to a certain profession so you can lace their speech with terms that they might use. Because let's face it a geographer might see the world in a different way than a lawyer. One of the great exercises for delineating character is to come up with vocab lists that are specific to that character. This dictionary is highly useful for that. It also leads you onwards.
So does anyone have any other great word books that they use?
When not looking up words, Michelle Styles writes for Harlequin Historical. Her next NA release is A Question of Impropriety in Dec 2010 and The Viking's Captive Princess in the UK Dec 2010. You can read more about her books on her website.


  1. I'm an ex librarian and just love, love, love dictionaries. Always have. Can't survive without my Concise Oxford (my favourite) and the Thesaurus.
    The best dictionary though is my mother in law's Websters from about 1930 or so (maybe older, can't remember). The old words and then the old definitions are fascinating to see how the English language - not to mention western culture - has changed.

  2. Hooray that there is another dictionary lover here.

    If you haven't discovered the Word Menu, Jackie, it is an excellent resource.

  3. Mee to on the dictionaries. And I did, ahem, load a 19th-century one onto the iPad because it was irresistible :)

    But don't get me started on the joys of trade directories. (It's why I know the streets of Norwich as they were 200 years ago just as well as I know the modern ones.)

  4. Yes, I know about you and dictionaries, Kate!

  5. My mum and dad have a set of 1960's encyclopedias and I must have spent 100's of hours pouring over them as a child (and still do when I go over to see them). They are well out of date by today's standards, and some of the contents obsolete,but they are still great reads. Caroline x