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COLLEGE-LEVEL DICTIONARIES AND FRESHMAN COMPOSITION Donna I. Arnold In Chapter One of Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp leaves Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, an institution in which she has been instructed in music, dancing , orthography, geography, embroidery, and needlework. The reader knows very little about Becky at this point in the novel; but by the end of the chapter, the essence of Becky's character is indicated to the reader in her one consummate gesture—as her coach leaves the school, Becky takes her parting gift from Miss Jemima Pinkerton (Johnson's Dictionary) and shoves it out the window. If users of reference books had a little more of Becky's irreverent attitude toward dictionaries and were not the devotees of lexicolatry that most of them are, there would be no need for this investigation. But most users of dictionaries are not Becky Sharps; to them a dictionary has the final say on what is correct and what is incorrect. Any dictionary is always THE DICTIONARY in the same way that any Bible is always THE BIBLE. Dictionary publishers have been guilty of fostering these attitudes by insisting that each of their dictionaries is the one, true authority, the standard. What everyone seems to forget is that all dictionaries are written by fallible men and women (including Dr. Johnson). Users of college-level dictionaries, of course, cannot expect them to treat words as comprehensively as an unabridged, but users can demand a certain standard of excellence. For this reason I have evaluated how well college-level dictionaries do serve the market for which they are primarily designed—freshman composition students. Establishing valid criteria for evaluating dictionaries is difficult, if not ultimately impossible. Because lexicography at its best is both an art and a science , there is always that element of the artistic which makes measurement of quality an almost fool-hardy endeavor. Nevertheless, there are some features of dictionaries which are measurable. Because I am concerned only with how well the college-level dictionary is suited to the needs of freshman composition students, criteria are delineated more precisely than if I were to evaluate the dictionaries for all possible users. For example, a professor of English literature probably would not need extensive usage guidance and notes, but a composition student of that same professor needs to know what usages are appropriate to formal written discourse. Critics have been presenting criteria for what makes a good dictionary for years.1 The most recent evaluation of dictionaries is the Dictionary Buying Guide in which Kenneth Kister evaluates all kinds of dictionaries: the unabridged , college-level, those for children, etymological dictionaries, usage handbooks, slang lexicons, synonym/antonym lists, rhyming dictionaries, spelling dictionaries, acronym dictionaries, and many others. When Kister evaluated the vocabulary in each dictionary, he used ninety-two sample entries identified only by code. These entries truly "represent a broad cross section of standard and non-standard English, new and old words and phrases, and some technical nomenclature encountered in popular reading matter or textbooks" 69 70College-Level Dictionaries (Kister 1977:xix). This method of investigation certainly is more laudable than that of the United States Government whose key terms for entry evaluation are predominantly from the military field and space technology. Among the words in Kister are: aesthetic, bunco, creek, data bank, deep space, detente, Existentialism, going to the dogs, honcho, inalienable/ unalienable, irregardless, laetrile, mensch, nitrofurantoin, Pap smear, redneck, sic, tour de force, ultrafiche , and Wankel engine. Because Kister, for the most part, does not report the results of his investigation of these words, I have also examined the ninetytwo entries in my evaluation. The criteria of the past evaluators of dictionaries have been varied and often suited to a particular problem (e.g., sexism) or type of dictionary (e.g., elementary ). Nevertheless, certain criteria do seem to be important enough to be used again and again. Among these are authority, entry counts, other quantitatively measurable factors, and qualitative definition evaluation. Not all of these factors are of equal importance in evaluating dictionaries; however, they cannot be ignored. Because I evaluated college dictionaries for composition students only, some criteria, important to the evaluations of other types of dictionaries...


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