Author Dr Ian Wilson
Publisher Fifth Floor
ISBN 9780992602406
RRP £4.95

Reviewed by John Garth

Schott’s Miscellany and Eats, Shoots and Leaves ought to be thanked, I suppose, for making little books of lists and linguistics serious Christmas stocking contenders. There have been some truly dire successors, but this pocket-sized volume is inoffensive and informative.

Dr Ian Wilson, who earned his doctorate in French Political Philosophy at Brasenose, has eschewed complexity in constructing his Little Dictionary. There’s a section comprising thirteen topics, from Anthropology & Archaeology to Science & Technology; then there’s a section of other ‘General Words’, simply subdivided into parts of speech; and finally there’s a section on foreign loans. Definitions are curt. It’s a hodgepodge of the fairly familiar and the downright obscure. 

It does what it says on the tin, more or less. Digesting the Music section will help the incognoscenti demystify many of the Italian words for mood and tempo on score sheets; conning the Law section may assist in reading contracts. If you’re looking for serious utility there are better books out there, and lovers of the quirky will find no quirks here except the English language itself. But such are the accumulated riches of the language that word collections can hardly help but contain delights.

Some of the topics are particularly enjoyable. There’s a sensory delight in browsing the words for colour – pavonine ‘peacock blue’, smaragdine ‘emerald’, and the thoroughly Oxonian subfuscous ‘dusky’. I wonder how these words on page 13 would be experienced by someone suffering from synaesthesia (Medicine & Anatomy, p. 35).

Cut adrift from context and digested in relentless series, the word shapes begin to assert themselves. A fear of this, a taste for that, government by the other – all reveal their origins in Greek. I find it oddly satisfying that scotophobia means fear of darkness while the near-identical scopophobia means fear of being seen. Anacoluthon looks as if it has swum out of prehistoric seas, not out of books of grammar. I found myself sounding out the words in my head, struck by how perfectly their shapes suited their meaning: gibbous, ganglion, apse, catafalque. Could too much of this kind of thing lead to alexia (word blindness)?

The book does indeed include words I didn’t know – even for things I already knew, such as obelus, the † symbol used to mark footnotes, and embracery, the offence of trying to influence a jury illegally. Whether I’ll ever feel the need to use these new additions to my vocabulary is moot. I have actually used paronomasia before in conversation – a word for punning which I’ve only previously encountered in Tolkien’s juvenilia – but I don’t recommend it as a way of winning friends.

The definitions are frequently rather too vague, occasionally misleading. A deuterogamist is a ‘widow or widower who remarries’, but it should also include people who remarry after divorce. A little proofreading would also have been a good idea. Surely if you’re going to include scrying ‘crystal gazing’, you would spell the word for ‘fortune teller using a crystal’ scryer rather than skryer – or omit it altogether to accommodate more variety. And it doesn’t inspire confidence that the tenth word on the first page is epically misspelt – ‘autotochtonomous’ for autochthonous ‘aboriginal’. This little book could have done with some more thought – but still, it’s a pleasant stocking filler.