Resources for the Word

I had no idea of the Chambers Dictionary’s pivotal importance in the cruciverbalist world until Ian mentioned it in the post about DA’s use of ye in a clue.

I figure there’s probably a lot more cool stuff going round that I don’t know about and a lot of stuff you might not know about, so I’m posting this hoping that the word love can be shared all round.

Anyway, here’s what I use, have read or just recommend that’s got something to do with words:

  • dictionary.com is surprisingly good, and there’s even an iPhone version that you can download so that you’re always carrying a dictionary around with you wherever you go (that is, if you’ve got an iPhone — and on the subject of iPhone software, Stanza is a pretty good e-reader that I’ve read quite a few books on).
  • Wordnik is a good way to get examples of word usage for unfamiliar words, although it’s not a particularly good dictionary.
  • The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher is hands-down the best book on language I’ve read.
  • Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction by Geoffrey Sampson is a brilliant explanation of why languages are written the way they are.
  • The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage settles many of those questions you have about what’s acceptable and what’s not, but more importantly, does so by analysing how people speak and write rather than what some fussy grammarian might say.
  • I often browse through the humorously-written Q&A section of the Chicago Manual of Style whenever I have an editing issue I need to figure out (and my own editing standards say err on the side of using a hyphen rather than not).

The language books by Steve Pinker are pretty good, but they can be a bit too long. Languages and Their Status and Languages and their Speakers are also pretty good, but they focus quite heavily on grammar so they might not be for everyone.

And Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is entertaining and well-written if a little out of date.

You got any others?

Update: I thought of more stuff!

  • With the British pound so low these days, Book Depository gets you very cheap books delivered to your door shipped for free! I don’t know how they survive, but I’ve bought many books from there and everything has worked out well.
  • Read Jorge Luis Borges, especially the short stories Library of Babel, Funes, the Memorious and The Garden of Forking Paths, for a finer appreciation of words and what they mean.
  • George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation is a ridiculously erudite study of language and translation

There’s also Nicholas Ostler’s Empire of the Word: A Language History of the World, which contains lots of information, wonderful maps and scripts, but which is a little dry and clunkily written.

Also, Ferdinand de Saussure’s seminal Course in General Linguistics is refreshingly good, if somewhat dated now.

And Professor Harris’s Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure is a very good history of linguistics.

5 thoughts on “Resources for the Word

  1. Bryan Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage” is very good, and I suspect his “Garner’s Modern American Usage” is very good too.

  2. Yes, I agree. And another good one (arranged alphabetically like Bill Bryson’s) is Stephen Murray-Smith’s Right Words

    Also The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers.

  3. I’m a big fan of Fontana’s Dictionary of Modern Thought, for all you needed to know about “isms”.

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