A Lexicographical Truce

Oxford American Dictionary Edited by Eugene Ehrlich Oxford University Press, $14.95

THE AMERICAN PHONY always gives himself away by his colour. There are other hints, of course--Dunhill cigarettes, references to "Bianca" in conversation, upraised sport-jacket collars, to name only a few--but the single guaranteed, dead-to-rights giveaway of pretension and affectation beyond bounds of normal tolerance is the spelling of color with a "u."

In territory west of the Emerald Isle and south of the Canadian commonwealth, users of the dreaded "u" intend the letter to bespeak Old World sophistication and disdain for the intellectual squalor of the former colonies. Colour has the weight of Empire behind it; color is a graceless contraction.

The bible for these xenophiles--and, in fairness, anyone concerned with the English language--is THE Oxford English Dictionary, OED to its friends. Since the completion of its 12 volumes in 1928, and with its regularly issued supplements, the OED has served as the last word on English words. But now, 350 years after the first British settlers arrived on these shores, and 200 years after the locals sent their British bosses packing, the Oxford authorities have decided to acknowledge the American Revolution. George Bernard Shaw once said, "England and American are two countries separated by a common language." Oxford does not try to bridge the gap; instead it has attempted to master the language from across the ocean.

The Oxford American Dictionary, not surprisingly dubbed the OAD by its authors, lays down the law on color ("colour" does not appear in its listings) and 816-pages-worth of other words. Despite the similar acronym, the authors, four editors working in consultation with the Hudson Group in the Oxford University Press New York office, have not sought to write a comprehensive OED for the States. With more realistic goals in mind, they have instead entered the competitive--and lucrative--field of desk-top hardcover and paperback dictionaries. (The Avon paperback is $4.95.)

The Oxfordians have created a readable, comprehensive--and this is most impressive--thoroughly American volume. No centre, cheque or programme here, this dictionary is as American as a Texas barbecue (which, in one of the dictionary's more awkward entries, is called "an open-air party at which food is cooked on this.").

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN probably would have liked the OAD's simplicity. Words appear in large, clear, bold-face type, and even better the pronunciations are given in normal, English letters, not in the incomprehensible, upside-down, umlaut- laden code favored by Webster's and American Heritage. Franklin might be less pleased with the OAD because he doesn't appear in it. The editors mysteriously decided to include the spellings of every nation in the world and their capitals (Umtata is the capital of Transkei) but to avoid all personal names except those of the 40 Presidents of the United States. Vice-presidents (too bad for fans of George Mifflin Dallas, Polk's v.p.) don't make it; and Ronald Reagan didn't make press time.

Intent on refuting potential criticism of Olde English snobbery, the editors seem to have gone out of their way to find Americanisms. "Hoity-toity," "WATS line," "umpteen," "pinhead," and the verb to "off" (kill) are all defined; the editors do, however, miss a couple, such as "dive," as in a bad or dangerous restaurant or bar, and "hyper." Occasional usage notes do slip into an unpleasant pedantic style: "Careful writers use dived rather than dove in the past tense." But even less frequent notes on the origin or phrases turn up interesting information; the term "poobah," for example, a person who holds many offices at once, comes from a character in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado.

Samuel Johnson, who fathered the first English dictionary, set one peculiar standard by which contemporary dictionaries might still be judged. Johnson collected more than 100,000 words, mostly by memory, and his definition of "network" set a lofty and graceful standard in lexicographic science: "anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections." The OAD effort has an admirable simplicity ("an arrangement or pattern with intersecting lines") and certainly surpasses the bulky Webster entry ("a fabric or structure of cords or wires that cross at regular intervals and are knotted or secured at the crossings") but neither improves on the work of the master.

OF COURSE, Oxford-Webster comparison seems inevitable, as both parties acknowledge--or regally refuse to acknowledge--in their introductory essays. In the Webster "Tabular History of the English Language," the "Developments since 1800" list cryptically notes, "Oxford, Century and Merriam-Webster in high-flying company. Oxford, on the other hand, goes on for several pages about the OED and James Murray's gallant 37-year struggle to publish the weighty tome, but does not even mention the Webster edition. War simmers among the lexicographers.

The Webster-Collegiate, with which the OAD is intended to compete, still probably has the edge. Despite its smaller type, Webster's vastly greater scope, superior graphics (the OAD has none) and convenient thumb index (not available in the OAD) and $11.95 price tag make it still the better buy.

But perhaps in the age when the John Simon-William Safire-Edwin Newman-style of linguistic Jeremiad is so fashionable in the United States, Americans can draw a little satisfaction from the Oxford dons' attentions. Of course, the Oxford Press embarked on this enterprise because there was money to be made, but the publication of the OAD does give final legitimacy to a language now even more vital and alive than the mother tongue. American English deserves celebration. Oxford, citadel of the Old World, has finally made peace with the new; the phonies probably never will.