A fun dictionary. Who knew?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 17, 2010

Several years ago when I received a gift certificate to use at an Internet book store, I chose a dictionary instead of a novel. There must be a dozen or more dictionaries scattered in bookshelves around our house, but none like the one I selected. I decided on this dictionary when a relative told me about purchasing one for an eleven-year-old. “It’s fascinating,” he said. “Not only is it great for kids, but any adult who loves words will treasure it.” The talking advanced learner’s dictionary is in print and comes with a CD-ROM to install on a computer. There’s also a thesaurus on the CD.

The book includes American English, Australian and New Zealand English, and British English. I’ve discovered it is a good idea to keep this dictionary beside me when I read novels. A day or so ago, I was reading a book with an Australian character in it. She used the word “sheila,” and I didn’t have a clue. My dictionary revealed she meant an Australian woman. Some time ago, my husband was trying to find different kind of hats. I remembered a color page of hats in the dictionary. There we found what he was looking for—a trilby.

There’s a refresher course on grammar and punctuation for anyone who feels the need to brush up on them. I especially like using the dictionary on the computer to hear the different ways we pronounce words in the U.S. and Britain.

I kept finding things I hadn’t noticed before. For instance, I typed in “travail” for the definition, and then clicked on the smart thesaurus. That’s when the fun began. Words like banana skin, cow, and cleft stick appeared on the list, all relating to difficult experiences and unpleasant situations. Banana skin is an informal British noun, used to describe a sudden, unexpected situation that makes a person appear foolish or causes them difficulty. It sat right below bad hair day with which every American woman is familiar. I’d never heard to be in a cleft stick, which meant a situation where it is very difficult to decide what to do, usually because either of your choices of action would cause problems. Cow is an Australian English informal noun that means something difficult or unpleasant, and used like “That was a cow of a job I tackled.”

When my husband asked me to look up British nobility, I typed “duke” and  to my surprise a block titled “Extra Examples” popped up. I clicked it. There it listed the ranks of the British nobility—an extra bonus he needed, but had no idea it would just jump out at us.

You can even find a section on grammar and spelling differences between American and British English. We spell the word that means a quality that combines respect, pride, and honesty, “honor”; they spell it honour.

Even though I’ve had the dictionary several years, I just keep on finding pleasant surprises.