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Review of  A History of the Concise Oxford Dictionary

Reviewer: Traci C. Nagle
Book Title: A History of the Concise Oxford Dictionary
Book Author: Malgorzata Anna Kaminska
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.561

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The plethora of scholarship on Oxford University Press’s flagship Oxford English Dictionary (OED) might lead one to forget that OUP publishes a legion of other, smaller-scale dictionaries, from dictionaries of regional English (American, Canadian, Australian, etc.) to dictionaries of etymology, idioms, slang, and quotations. The making of the Concise Oxford Dictionary has been discussed in a number of biographies of its founding compilers, the brothers Henry W. and Francis G. Fowler (e.g., Burchfield 1979, McMorris 2002), but it has not previously been the subject of such intensive study as is presented in Małgorzata Anna Kamińska’s A History of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD, Peter Lang, 2014). Based on Kamińska’s doctoral thesis of the same title (2010, Opole University), this work presents a close examination of two sets of representative samples of the dictionary’s entries. The first sample, which comprises 50 consecutive headwords from each of six different letters of the alphabet, is examined in terms of the dictionary’s macrostructure—that is, the words chosen for inclusion and their ordering principles. The second sample comprises 5 full entries from each of those six alphabetical runs, and it is the basis for the exploration of the dictionary’s microstructure, or the substance and structure of its individual entries, such as definitions, etymologies, pronunciation, and usage labels. The author refers frequently to the secondary literature on lexicographical structure and practice and refers to some correspondence with prior and current editors of the COD. However, the bulk of the information she presents is drawn directly from the printed pages (including the editors’ prefaces) of the eleven editions of the COD published between 1911 and 2004.

The Introduction of this book outlines the author’s methodology and previews the structure of the analysis that will follow, describing the way in which elements of the macrostructure and microstructure are to be evaluated and compared. The relatively brief Part 1 of the book outlines the origins and history of the COD, which was created initially as an offshoot of the OED but in its tenth edition became based on an entirely different OUP dictionary. Part 1 also presents brief biographies of the COD’s various editors. The real substance of the book is contained in Part 2, which presents in eleven chapters a meticulous chronological examination of the edition-by-edition changes perceptible in the macro- and microstructure of the dictionary. These sections cover the front and back matter, the word list, the form of the entries, definitions, senses, syntagmatic/paradigmatic elements, etymology, pronunciation, usage labelling, and function. A 125-page appendix presents the entire corpus of dictionary entries upon which the book’s analysis is based—an impressive quantity of data to have analyzed.

The author discusses the effect that different approaches to dictionary-writing have on the user of a dictionary. For example, the Fowlers’ telegraphic style of definition-writing, which aimed at the most severe conservation of space, required significant reconstructive work on the part of the reader. The first edition’s definition of “burn down” (as when a campfire or oil lamp is reaching the end of its life) reads “less vigorously as fuel fails.” As Kamińska points out, this extremely pared-down defining style required the reader “to add the head of the compound being defined [in this example, ‘burn’],” which worked only to the extent that “the head of the defined unit was defined earlier in the entry” (p. 102). Beginning in the fifth edition the editors of the COD began to move away from this telegraphic style toward more transparent defining. Changes in the guidance given on pronunciation also changed dramatically over time, from the original editors’ offering of pronunciation information only for “words considered difficult for the user,” to the presentation of International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) transcriptions for all headwords in the eighth and ninth editions, and back to limited IPA-based information “only for words which could be tricky for the native speaker” (p. 179). This strategy was convenient for the editors, Kamińska states, but not necessarily optimal for the dictionary’s users.

In her three pages of “Conclusions” to the book, the author points out that the primary effect of the editorial changes over the course of a century of revision was to make the dictionary more user-friendly and more prescriptive (as measured by its increased offering of usage notes).


Of interest primarily to scholars and practitioners of lexicography, Kamińska’s volume provides exhaustive detail about the changes in entries across eleven editions of the COD. Her method is comprehensive and offers a model for other scholars interested in this type of close study. (Indeed, the method she used was identically applied by Mariusz Kamiński in his History of the Chambers Dictionary. The two authors appear to have shared the same dissertation advisor.) Unfortunately, Kamińska’s writing offers few if any original insights into the practice of lexicography in general or as applied to the COD, nor does it provide any revealing information about the evolving COD that could not be gleaned directly from the editors’ prefaces (which she cites frequently). The sections in Part 2 are heavy on detail but rather light on analysis and reflection. For instance, the discussion in Chapter 5 of the changes made in each edition’s front and back matter mentions the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of the publication date on the title page, but offers no proposals for why the date might be omitted in some editions and included in others. (One reason to omit a prominent display of the publication date, one might surmise, would be to deflect cursory accusations that the dictionary is out-of-date.) Nor, alongside the fact that the Fowler brothers’ names were dropped from the title page of the 1999 tenth edition, is it mentioned that this change coincided with the complete reconstruction of the dictionary, from being drawn since the Fowlers’ time from the OED, to being based starting with the tenth edition on the New Oxford Dictionary of English (Pearsall, ed., 1998). The six pages that comprise Chapter 14, “Function,” offer a reflection on the effects on the user of the changes detailed in the preceding 150 pages. Given that, except perhaps for the OED, every Oxford dictionary is written with a particular type of user in mind, this chapter would have seemed the obvious place for the author to step back and evaluate the changes documented thus far. That she concludes this discussion in only six pages was disappointing to this reader. Indeed, her book of nearly 200 pages offers a concluding chapter only 3 pages long; this fact alone illustrates that the book, in both the micro view and the macro view, is heavy on data presentation and light on insight.

The comprehensive presentation of comparative data, however, does offer the interested reader an engrossing illustration of the changes in dictionary practice over a long period of time. Contrasts between prescriptiveness and descriptiveness; between “proper” scholarly vocabulary (which was often “archaic, rare and difficult,” p. 205) and modern, familiar terms; and between the historical/chronological arrangement of senses used by the OED and the ordering of senses within entries by their currency can be clearly seen in the tabular presentations of the appendix.


Burchfield, Robert. 1979. The Fowlers: Their Achievements in Lexicography and Grammar. Surrey: Hartfield.

Kamińska, Malgorzata. 2010. A History of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Opole University (Opole, Poland).

Kamiński, Mariusz. 2013. A History of the Chambers Dictionary. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

McMorris, Jenny. 2002. The Warden of English: The Life of H. W. Fowler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pearsall, Judy, ed. 1998. The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Traci Nagle, who holds master's degrees in linguistics and in English, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Linguistics at Indiana University, Bloomington. She specializes in phonology, phonetics, the languages of South Asia, Indian English, and lexicography, especially the lexicography of Indian English and of the Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson-Jobson (1886).

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783631652688
Pages: 342
Prices: U.S. $ 82.95
U.K. £ 51.00