Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
19 Sep 2020
Written for Paperback
Why review a dictionary? Because dictionaries are books too. And how? That is a trickier question. Normally, I read the books that I review cover to cover, but even I am not so eccentric as to read a dictionary in its entirety. Instead, I have kept it close at hand while reviewing zoologically-themed books over the last few months. But first, some background.
Science writer Michael Allaby has been compiling technical dictionaries since 1976, first with MacMillan and since 1984 also with Oxford University Press. He now looks after five of their dictionaries: Zoology, Ecology, Plant Sciences, Environment & Conservation, and Geology & Earth Sciences (which I frequently use), all of which have gone into multiple editions. These are part of the Oxford Quick Reference series that contains other dictionaries on topics such as biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. The zoology dictionary reviewed here has been published under various titles in 1991, 1999, 2009, 2014, and, in this fifth edition, in 2020. Interestingly, the number of entries has hovered somewhere between 5-6,000 since the first edition, suggesting that each revision that added new words will also have dropped others.
The dictionaries in this range are compact, printed on thin (but not too thin) paper. Gouged-out thumb tabs are a feature you rarely see nowadays, and would only work for a larger hardcover dictionary anyway. Instead, full-bleed printing results in grey tabs visible on the side of the closed book. Entries at the top further help you quickly hone in on the term you are looking for. Next to the common names (see below), there is a series of short appendices with the terms used for endangered animals, the genetic code, the geologic timescale, SI units, metric prefixes (milli, micro, nano, etc.), a table with extant animal phyla, and the hierarchy used in taxonomic classification (species, genus, family, etc.). There are over sixty line drawings scattered throughout, mostly clarifying morphological terms, but this is no illustrated dictionary.
Utility is, of course, the be-all and end-all of any dictionary. The first entries I looked up were monophyly, polyphyly, and paraphyletic (there is no entry for paraphyly), which describe different patterns of evolutionary relatedness; sympatric, allopatric, and peripatric, which are different patterns of speciation; and holotype, lectotype, and syntype, which describe different categories of specimens in taxonomy used to define and name a species. I admit this to my shame – as an evolutionary biologist I should know these by heart, yet I still get confused. Concise definitions are given here, sometimes in one sentence, sometimes in a paragraph.
While I was reviewing Desert Navigator
I read about ants that are eusocial, brachypterous, and, in some cases, practice thelytoky. Some are crepuscular, and some show torpor. Their morphology mentioned parts such as a petiole and a pygidium.
Mark Witton populated his book Life through the Ages II
with temnospondyls, procolophonids, pareiasaurs, perissodactyls, and artiodactyls. One feature of this dictionary is that it includes a large number of entries for order and family names. For this edition, common names have been moved from the main entries to a 50-page appendix. So, the whale groups odontocetes and mysticetes are in the main dictionary, but the rorqual (a species) is in the appendix.
A random sampling reveals such lexicographical jewels as Aristotle's lantern, hypsodont, orthokinesis, or synecology.
The reason I speak in tongues here is to show you why you need a dictionary. Like most scientists, biologists are hyperspecialised within their subdisciplines. No matter how knowledgeable you are in your discipline, papers and technical books only slightly outside of your field will contain unfamiliar terminology.
Naturally, you have to make a selection when compiling a dictionary, so I could not find everything. Necromones and polydomous were missing. Perhaps they were too specific? Other omissions are harder to understand. mt-DNA (mitochondrial DNA) is in, but ncDNA is not (it stands for non-coding DNA, by the way, not nuclear DNA). Speaking of diets, folivorous (leaf-eating) is in, but graminivorous (grass-eating) is not, nor is granivorous (grain-eating). Looking at whale morphology, melon (fatty tissue in the forehead used in vocalization) is in, but junk (the analogous structure in sperm whales) is not. And the entry for Testudines does not clear up the linguistic differences between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.
Detractors might look at this and ask why you would bother with a paper dictionary. Everything is online anyway nowadays and just a search on Google or Wikipedia away. True, but is it not ironic that when you look up online the first word in this dictionary, abaptation, you find the definition that Allaby wrote for this dictionary? Let's not forget the lexicographical work and research that goes into writing a dictionary.
I am no techno-Luddite making the case that a paper dictionary is superior to an online one. There are many advantages that a paper dictionary cannot replicate (the almost zunlimited amount of words you can find online, the option to quickly update definitions and correct mistakes). OUP offers online versions of its dictionaries, and the third edition of their Environment & Conservation one is now online only (though trying to figure out how to subscribe to it as a private individual send me down a confusing warren).
But online has downsides too. Most online resources are free and (partially) depend on annoying adverts to pay their bills. Sitting down at a computer brings the risk of easy distraction, whereas with a printed book it is just me and the words. The worst that can happen with is that I look up other words. Trustworthiness of online resources can be questionable, so further research might be needed anyway. And when I read a (printed) book, I am seated in a comfortable spot, not at my computer, so it is far easier to have a dictionary within arm's reach. And as opposed to websites or internet connections, books can't go "down". Plus, it is easy to forget that online access is a privilege that we in the Western world take for granted but that is not universal.
Clearly, a printed dictionary is a personal preference. I have found that I use the technical dictionaries I have regularly. I would even argue there is space in the Oxford Quick Reference range for a few more. A dictionary dedicated to evolutionary biology & palaeontology? I would buy it instantly (Springer publishes a palaeontological one, but it is very expensive). And an entomological dictionary would also be welcome. The affordability and authoritativeness are enough for me to make the OUP dictionaries my first port of call.