Category Archives: Reference

Collins English Dictionary

For once I find myself speechless on this blog. And considering it’s while we’re on the subject of a dictionary, this ought not to happen. Let me just say that the Resident IT Consultant has some – mostly – wise things to say about the dictionary I have permitted him to play with for a few days. Over to the man who can think to look up words like chi-squared:

“Who needs a dictionary in these days of instant access to infinite amounts of information? HarperCollins obviously believe somebody does, because it has just published a 12th edition of its Collins English Dictionary – CED – which now becomes the largest single-volume English dictionary in print with 722,000 ‘words, meanings and phrases’, including 50,000 new ones, spread over 2,300 pages.

Collins English Dictionary 12th edition

Despite its size CED is surprisingly easy to use. It’s slightly smaller than previous editions and weighs less (2.6kg). It’s attractively bound in black cloth, with no dust jacket to get torn. There’s a ‘virtual thumb index’ printed down the outermost edge of pages which makes it easy to navigate to the right section. And the typeface has been specially customised for the dictionary making the pages remarkably easy to read given the tremendous amount of information that has been crowded onto them.

But back to my question. What’s the point of a dictionary today? If you need to find the meaning of a word, why not simply look it up on the Internet, in one of the many crowd-sourced dictionaries such as Wiktionary, or in a commercially provided Internet dictionary (Collins, Oxford and Chambers all do one)? Alternatively you can simply Google the word and discover for yourself how it is used.

One answer is authority. If you need a quick and reliable answer to a question a dictionary may be best. For example, if I’m reading C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and I quickly want to know what the second law of thermodynamics is, I can find an impressively clear and succinct definition in CED (so long as I know to look under ‘law’), written in only 32 words and understandable to a layman. I could get this information from the Internet, but it would take more effort, even if I went straight to Wikipedia.

I sometimes do a bit of proofreading and often find myself referring to a dictionary to check my understanding of correct UK English. Should it be ‘Internet’ or ‘internet’? ‘Inquire’ or ‘enquire’? ‘Sulphur’ or ‘sulfur’? If I were willing to place my trust totally in one dictionary, or to declare that this was what I was going to do, then CED would enable me to answer these questions quickly. Sometimes though, the answer is more complicated and I still need to research the reasons behind the differences on the Internet. And of course I could still look up the CED entries for these words on the online site, which is free (and seems to have the same content as this printed dictionary plus some extras such as more usage examples and usage trends).

I was impressed by CED’s coverage of scientific terms which clearly reflects its extensive list of specialist consultants. The entries for Bayesian, eigenvector, continuous, Taylor Series, Coriolis Force and chi-squared test were all models of clarity and succinctness. Scottish terms are reasonably covered. I can find bridie, bannock, clootie dumpling, neeps, tattie and tablet. Auld Reekie is there, but not the Granite City; the Mearns, but not the East Neuk. Wee Frees, but not the Highland Line.

I went hunting for words that I felt should be in the dictionary but weren’t, and the strongest contender I could find was descope; to change the scope of a project in response to an expected failure to meet budgetary or timescale constraints. Personally I’ve used this word since the late 1990s and you can find instances of its use from the BBC, the Guardian and Hansard from around 2000.

But I think the real strength of the physical dictionary over its electronic equivalents lies in the experience of using it to browse. There is something about the feel of the book and the ability to scan two pages of content at one glance that cannot be matched with a screen. For example, on looking up shellac (because I am currently painting something with shellac primer) I find, on the same pair of pages: 1) that while the word shemozzle comes from Yiddish, the origin of shenanigans is unknown (I had always assumed somehow that it was Irish); 2) an account of the differences between the role of a sheriff in the USA, England and Wales, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand and 3) a surprisingly concise and comprehensible definition of an electron shell.”

I just have to say this; I like the number 722 (with or without thousands). Not so sure about eigenvector… And it is a rather elegant looking volume.

I knew it had to be somewhere

Talk of antiquated! (I did. On Tuesday.)

As I was saying, I knew it would be somewhere. I searched at home, high and low. And then, without searching at all, I happened to glance sideways at Mother-of-witch’s bookshelf (re-arranged many times by me), and there it was! I can’t understand why I haven’t had it with me.

The Retired Children’s Librarian was a dutiful and hard-working librarian in her day. She wrote the odd guide-book on what to read. This is one of them, Böcker för barn och ungdomar som inte tycker om att läsa. As will be obvious to most of you, that’s Books for children and teens who don’t like reading.

There are many such people, although possibly not very often found in libraries. But compile this long list of suitable books she did. And this being before I knew any published writers, I was quite proud to know her. The book is signed. It says ‘greetings from the author.’ (Med hälsningar från författaren, is what I mean.)

At the time I tended to agree with what she suggested. I had read quite a few already, and was interested to see what else she reckoned would be good. Published in 1977, I was too old to be her target audience, and I will blame my ignorance of K M Peyton on that, because I see she included Flambards and something else.

I note – now – that she was fair, since she has included books I happen to know she wasn’t terribly keen on. That’s as it should be.

I’ll need to read through this more carefully, but I’d bet that most of the books will still be worthwhile, with only a few becoming obsolete with the passing of time. Swedish libraries use a cataloging system different from many others, and it’s interesting to see that they have included all the reference numbers, presumably to ease the search when the un-keen reader goes to the library to find it.

Because that’s where you were supposed to go, back in the days when libraries simply were there for you.

What next?

Who Next?

Who Next..? A guide to children’s authors. Is a book like that useful? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I have rarely called on it to help me, even though I bought it with my own money, a number of years ago. I have no cause to disagree with its advice. I just don’t refer to it.

This could be because I know it ‘all’ or I’m lazy, or simply that my reading world spins so fast I have no time to check on the suggestions it offers. And there is the other problem of time; the time that has passed since the list was compiled. Lists like these become antiquated sooner than you’d think. It won’t have the last two years’ worth of mustn’t-miss-authors, while suggesting you try X, who has not written anything new since they ended up in Who Next..?

My copy of this reader’s aid has always sat within easy reach, and still I’ve not used it. Is it me? Or do others also feel they will simply allow themselves to stumble upon their next book via other means?

In a way it competes with me. I spend my days telling people what I think they should read next. Not always saying ‘you enjoyed X, so do try Y’ but we tend to compare one book with something else we know, if only as a description.

Sisters and Friends

Tant Brun

I know we did colours yesterday, but permit me to add a colourful, literary lady; Tant Brun. She is one of Elsa Beskow’s three tants, Green, Brown and Purple. This one appears to run a café in Sigtuna. I was so full of having been ‘thrown out of’ another Sigtuna café the other day, that I completely forgot to mention Tant Brun. I bet she wouldn’t dream of behaving like that.

Bokhandel, Norrtälje

‘All’ postcards of Norrtälje that I have ever received, have featured this bookshop. I found myself buying the same card myself, and sending it, despite there being many others. But the shop is quite pretty and as the Resident IT Consultant remarked, it grows inside and goes on and on. Rather like Blackwell’s in Oxford.

Norrtälje Bokhandel

Norrtälje has another bookshop, too. Not as cute, but still a bookshop. (Last time in Norrtälje I bought four plastic fish-shaped soap dishes. Not in a bookshop, I hasten to add.)

As you will know if you called in yesterday, we drove south. After enjoying another breakfast on the terrace overlooking Mariestad harbour, we went to visit my oldest sister. I have met her a few more times than her little brother, whom we saw last week. Unlike him she has no lake, but her flat boasts a larger garden than Bookwitch Towers, and much more forest. Very nice.

Then we drove even more south and ended up at School Friend’s house. The weather continued fine, but it was the first time in over a week that I could sit still without breaking into a sweat. (I know. One shouldn’t mention perspiration. But sometimes it’s all a witch can think of.)

Today is Mr School Friend’s birthday. I’m hoping for cake. And a party. Coincidence is an interesting thing, and I am fairly certain I will see Brother of School Friend, who was once – a very long time ago, it has to be said – class mates with oldest sister (which is stranger than it might seem to you).

The road atlas

This is the book that brought us all the way north (well, more north than I am used to) and back again. Whenever the Resident IT Consultant asked how far it was to somewhere, I always replied ‘about an inch,’ because strangely enough, it always seemed to be. The atlas can rest now. We know the last part of the journey well enough to manage without help. Although it is a wee bit further than an inch.

Euro Noir

Wouldn’t it be nice to be an expert at lots of things? Except you can’t. There is a limit to how much you can delve into different areas of interest. And that’s when it’s good to have someone who does it for you.

Barry Forshaw knows a lot about crime (in the right sort of way). He is a Nordic crime specialist, but reads a wider diet than that. Here he is with his new Euro Noir, briefly outlining crime fiction and films in a number of European countries. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never considered whether there are Polish crime novels.

He wondered what I would make of the Nordic section, which is only right, since I know almost nothing about Romania or Greece when it comes to crime, or any fiction, now that I think of it. But if I did want to read something so drastically new, I now know where I would begin. With this book. And then one of the ones mentioned in here.

Barry Forshaw, Euro Noir

Barry is right to ponder how he can cover Nordic crime yet again and so briefly, but he has succeeded. There is a good selection of authors from a long time ago as well as now. And he does the same for the other Nordic countries. You might know a lot of it already, but I bet there will be something new for everyone.

And once you’ve covered the north, there is all the rest of Europe. If I were to tackle French crime I’d have to go to Fred Vargas. Barry very sensibly asked various specialists to write a page on what they like best, and my colleague Karen Meek likes Fred Vargas. That’s good enough for me.

There is a wide coverage of films, including some pretty ancient ones, and obviously the recent euro crime we’ve seen on television during the last few years. Again, you might know it all, but that doesn’t prevent this from being interesting to read.

Euro Noir is a short book, which will quickly tell you what you need to know.

Bread sticks and brain sticks

Being attacked by a goose isn’t as bad as it might seem at first. It sets off your adrenaline and a few other chemicals and makes the required jump across a really high gate possible. It’s only if you then dwell on the constant possibility of further goose attacks that you might feel stressed in the wrong way. And that’s not good.

Nicola Morgan's shoes

Last night I went to the launch of Nicola Morgan’s new book, The Teenage Guide to Stress. I always forget how interesting Nicola is and how well she talks at events like these. There was absolutely no need at all for her to walk round persuading people they needed more wine before she began, but she did anyway. And there were bread sticks. Three kinds.

Nicola Morgan

The room at Blackwell’s – we really must stop seeing each other like this – was full. Nicola was wearing gorgeous shoes, and pink trousers I could have killed for, if I thought I could wear pink trousers. Even I, as a relative newcomer, knew a few people there, which is always nice. Nicola tried threatening us at the back with special treatment if we didn’t move to the front, but soon all seats were taken, so she couldn’t actually do anything about us. Me, especially.

She had stuff to offer. Free posters, rolled up, which looked just right to hit people with. Nicola introduced her brain sticks, which are USBs filled with useful material on brains, and which she has spent 1000 hours on producing. There were three tea-towels to win.

Nicola Morgan

People who say they never suffered from stress when they were young are wrong. They suffer from amnesia, which is a coping strategy. It helps you forget the bad stuff. Before, there was not a single book for teenagers on stress. Now there is one. And this is important, because teen stress is different from that suffered by adults.

It’s the constant, low level, kind of stress that won’t go away, which is so bad for you. It is constantly having to ‘perform at things you are not good at’ which makes the teen years such hell. It leaves less ‘bandwidth’ for other things. The two main bad things are exams and the internet. Teenagers don’t have the life experience we oldies have, and they tend to believe they are alone in their suffering. Adults are generally able to stop doing what they are bad at; in Nicola’s case maths and singing.

Nicola Morgan

With her book Nicola hopes to settle minds. That’s what people need. The book has three parts. The first is what stress is. The second what the stress is about. And the third how to deal with it.

She has looked into the research on whether chocolate alleviates stress and it appears it doesn’t. However Nicola feels there are more ways to look at this, and urged us to do more research. Generosity is good, which is why she offered us all some 70% dark chocolate.

Nicola Morgan

And speaking of generosity; you know what had to happen. I won a tea-towel. I already have one, so didn’t feel I needed to win, but as I stood there looking at the tickets in the envelope, I knew* that no matter which ticket I picked, it’d be the winning one. And it was. So I gave the tea-towel to the man behind me, scooped up some chocolate I can’t eat and took it home and gave to the Resident IT Consultant to see if generosity is as good as Nicola suggested.

I suppose it is.

*I’m a witch. I feel these things.

Nicola Morgan

The Beatles

You certainly feel your age when Offspring come home from school, tasked to enquire whether their parents were alive when The Beatles were around. Does it make you very old? Or is it merely that teachers have grown disproportionately young? The one who asked this was actually very nice, and a good teacher. Nevertheless, I felt ancient. (Since when does pop music belong in history lessons?)

Because, yes, I was around, back when.

It doesn’t mean I know, or remember, every fact about The Fab Four, but I do recall the general feel of the era. Although I need to point out I was obviously very young when all this happened. Ahem. To prove it I can tell you I had to rely on Mother-of-witch to read what the newspapers wrote about the long-haired Liverpool lads.

For Christmas 1963 I was given a record player, and my first record, She Loves You. The Aunts disapproved of all this foreign stuff. After all, there were people around who sang in a language you could understand. But I sang happily along to She Loves You and all the others, without having any idea of what they, and I, were singing about.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, The Beatles

Now my fellow countrywoman Brita Granström and her husband Mick Manning have produced a very nice illustrated reference book on The Beatles. I have learned things I didn’t know before. I have been reminded of what was so special about John, Paul, George and Ringo. And I remembered why I half ditched them in the end.

Brita’s pictures tell more of a story than words do, and together she and Mick have made a fab book about what came before The Beatles made it big 50 years ago, what happened once they did, and how it all ended. I know more now about their early lives (including getting some unexpected help with a quiz question I came across the same day I read the book), and I properly understand how the haircut came to be. I’ve even had a new and better explanation to their name.

Whether you’re the right side of 50, or just ten and wondering who The Beatles really were, this is the book for you. I happen to have a good friend who likes all things Beatles. I will not be passing my copy on to him.

Just thought I’d mention that. He can buy his own.