3 Oct 2011


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For a foreign language you have a choice between bilingual dictionaries (English-French etc.) and monolingual dictionaries of the language in question. You are also interested in the size and coverage of a dictionary and in various other properties.

A monolingual dictionary of a foreign language will be useful only to someone who has a fairly good knowledge of that language, so learners start off with bilingual dictionaries. The more you know of a language, the better the dictionary you need; but when you don’t know much, it’s better not to have too big a dictionary: firstly, because its physical size makes it unmanageable (and you’ll be consulting it frequently), and secondly you’re probably happy not to worry about rare words when your basic vocabulary is small. So there’s a natural progression from small bilingual dictionaries to medium ones, and then to monolingual dictionaries, always recognising that the user won’t be limiting himself to a single source.

Now, bilingual dictionaries are nearly always bidirectional, and except for small travel dictionaries this seems to me unfortunate. Firstly, one wants one direction or the other, but almost never wants both at the same time. And in the case of a good dictionary, doubling the size makes the book too heavy to lift with a single hand.

Secondly, the level of coverage one wants in the two directions is seldom the same. Personally I need to be able understand rare words in French, Italian and Spanish, but have no need to translate rare English words into any language.

So I’m inclined to take the following views:

  • A bilingual dictionary of any size should be sold as separate volumes for each direction.
  • There’s little point in having a large bilingual dictionary. By the time you need the rare words absent from a medium-sized dictionary, you’ll be happy with a monolingual work. Large bilingual dictionaries are useful only as reference works for people who encounter isolated rare words in a language they don’t know (and who nowadays will use the internet).
  • Full understanding of a word requires knowledge of its etymology and evolution which are the province of a monolingual dictionary.


•    Harrap’s ‘Shorter French and English Dictionary’ (1978), a rare example of a bilingual dictionary with separate volumes for each direction, and my favourite language dictionary. It doesn’t suffer from over-earnestness.

Aller pisser, F: to spend a penny, to see a man about a dog, to have a look at the plumbing, to shed a tear for Nelson.

I have both directions, but never use them at the same time.

•    ‘Le petit Robert’ (1993), my least favourite dictionary on account of a typographical infelicity. It’s about half as large again as Chambers English dictionary. No doubt it’s a fine piece of lexicography, but for the foreign reader at any rate it’s hard to scan through. Chambers uses bold type to emphasise idioms: eg.

cut vt to penetrate with a sharp edge... cutaway a coat with the skirt cut away... cutback a reduction or decrease...

Harrap’s has the same layout:

couper, v.tr. To cut... C. dans le vif, to cut to the quick... C. les cartes, to cut...

But the petit Robert uses italics for this purpose, while bold type points to related entries:

couper, v.tr. 1. Diviser avec un instrument tranchant (=> fendre, scier)... Couper un chat, le châtrer... Bise qui coupe le visage. => 2. cingler...


•    Harrap’s ‘Shorter Italian and English Dictionary’ (1989). Bought out of loyalty to the French version, but bound as a single volume, probably more comprehensive than the French and too large. The pagination prevents me from rebinding it as two volumes even if I was willing to go to the expense.

Unlike most of my dictionaries, this was compiled by an Italian house and issued by an English publisher. There are a few minor weaknesses as a result; for instance phonetic guidance is given on English but not on Italian proper names.


A characteristic of Spanish dictionaries is that they give no indication of pronunciation. This is because the language is entirely phonetic except for loan words (though with different pronunciation rules for different dialects), and the Spanish cultures are disposed to preserve the commonality of their language rather than fracture it as Webster did.

•    Berlitz ‘Spanish Standard Dictionary’ (2009). Bought as an experiment. A travel dictionary (though more than pocket-sized), this is about right for my current knowledge of the language. It works better now that I’ve torn it in two at the join between the two sections. The use of colour is a slight benefit, the American English bias a slight drawback; but it’s fine.

•    Oxford ‘Concise Spanish Dictionary’ (2004). A good dictionary, very clearly laid out, but a heavy volume. Hopefully I will graduate to using it.

•    Real Academia Española ‘Diccionario de la Lengua Española’ (2001). The official dictionary of the language. Two volumes attractively bound and a pleasure to hold and to use. A good piece of work, but a couple of minor observations can be made. It’s surprisingly small for its role, and certainly lacks many Quechua terms which have been taken into Peruvian Spanish. It would be a little easier to use if the two volumes could be distinguished at a glance. Loan words such as mezzosoprano are put in italics to indicate that they aren’t pronounced as spelt, but no indication is given of how they are pronounced.

index | Colin’s home page