22 APRIL 2000, Page 15

Mind your language

IN an interesting and practical letter about pole-axes, a reader from Harrow, G.K. Connelly, asks in passing if I can recommend a good single-volume dic- tionary. That is difficult. It depends what you want. Most people, and I am one, use a dictionary to tell them how words are spelt, and sometimes what they mean. It helps if the dictionary on your desk does not sprain your wrist. I always used to have Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (now updated to 21st Century). But then my confidence was undermined by its fatuous and erro- neous comments on the word handi- capped. I've mentioned it before, but it is so symptomatic of a trend that I'll mention it again. Handicapped, it says, is to be avoided because of its associa- tion 'with the image of disabled people going "cap in hand" on to the streets of Victorian Britain'. The lexicographer was so indignant that he forgot that the word is about being hand-in-cap, not cap-in-hand. Anyway, I got a letter from France last week postmarked with a plea for the handicaps s; so it seems they manage these things better on the streets of Dijon. Chambers is not alone in having little boxes littering the text with advice on how to use words. Syntactically it is often as dodgy as it is morally. Nor does it include the names and dates of prominent people, as do the Collins Dictionary and the New Oxford Diction- ary of English (the Node). At nearly 71b, the Node is a bit too close to wrist- spraining weight. I was glad to see that it lists albert, 'a watchchain', which Chambers does not. What Chambers has and the Node does not is two mean- ings for Prince Albert, one of them inde- cent and looking suspiciously like an attempt to be fashion-conscious. The Node boasts that it is based on a computerised sample of a few million words, and so does the Encarta Diction- ary of World English. More important to the user than breadth of sample is the judgment of the dictionary-makers. Both the Node and Encarta fail the carminative test.

Carminative is a word found in popu- lar works from Swift to Aldous Huxley, but Encarta does not include it, which is feeble. The Node gives an erroneous etymology, from canninare, 'to sing'. I thought it was from the other Latin verb canninare, 'to card wool' — in the sense of unknotting the wind in your belly, which is the job of a carminative. With the Encarta stuffed with mis- takes, I'd plump for Chambers after all, or Collins if you must have the names of people.

Dot Wordsworth