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Book Review

Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture, First edition (1992) by Longman Group UK Limited, ISBN 0 582 23 794 7 (Cased edition), ISBN 0 582 23720 3 (Paperback edition) Second edition (1998) by Addison Wesley Longman Limited, ISBN 0 582 30204 8 (Cased edition), ISBN 0 582 30203 X (Paperback edition)

This review has been written by Anna Tomczak, who teaches British Studies at the Katedra Neofilologii, University of Białystok, and is a contributor to the British Studies Web Pages.

Dictionaries are not books to love, cherish or choose as your loo companions. They don't appear on the lists of 'ten things I'd take with me to a desert island'. Dictionaries are for reference, not to be studied, but consulted. They will never feature in 'the top ten books of the millennium'. But can you imagine your life without them? For students and teachers of a foreign language a good dictionary is your daily bread and an authority you can ask any basic or silly question without the risk of appearing stupid. Is Longman's Dictionary of English Language and Culture a good dictionary?

One might start with a list of expectations. After all, it's a dictionary of language and culture, so can we find there the notions and concepts that define culture for us? Starting with T.S. Eliot's famous list: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dartboard, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar - will we find the explanations? Derby Day is there, so are the Henley Regatta, Cowes, Elgar, the dartboard, the pin table and Wensleydale cheese. However, you'll learn about the twelfth of August only if you check the entry for 'grouse' or 'Glorious Twelfth', and as for the food which the English are fond of, I suggest looking at the feature about social classes in the 1992 edition. Chinese takeaway is more meaningful in Britain at the turn of the century than 'cabbage cut into sections'. Eliot's world is not synonymous with that of 'city gents', 'cloth caps', 'yuppies', 'cockneys', 'punks', 'Geordies', 'rastafarians', or 'the Green Wellie Brigade', all of whom feature in the book. Are Eliot's notions of the Forties relevant to British people at the start of the New Millennium?

I think they are. I believe Eliot's definition of culture is vital to understanding the changes the world (and Britain) have undergone and I am absolutely positive that Longman's Dictionary of Language and Culture is a good book. It contains 80,000 words and phrases and over 15,000 cultural and encyclopaedic entries. It has comprehensive features on such topics as education, holidays, government and much more. In it you can find thematically arranged colour illustrations of events from history, the Wild West, famous films or scenes from Shakespeare. There are also maps and cultural notes. The black and white pictures accompanying a great number of definitions are as forceful in their expressiveness as the written word. My favourites are those of a bull, a caveman, and a detective. As a reference book the dictionary gives the user even more than can be expected - a comparison of British and American aspects of life, cultural information in the form of feature articles about Christmas, holidays or the law, as well as notes on the usage of certain terms. It is an invaluable help for students of English, especially students of British Studies.

True to form the 1998 edition is not only updated but also revised. Certain mistakes which occurred in the first edition have been corrected. Gone are some minor errors like the name of Sir Bedivere misspelt or the use of a capital letter in the title of Iris Murdoch's novel "The Sea, the Sea". Much more importantly, the texts of many entries have been changed, changed for the better. The most notable examples are entries on Poland, the House of Lords, Woody Allen or the cultural note on feminism. Lots of new faces have appeared, literally, as there are now photographs of Richard Branson, Mel Gibson or Paul Gascoigne. On the other hand, some pictures vanished - for example those of Khomeini or Bob Marley. All the important politicians of the last decade have found their way to the Second Edition (Tony Blair, William Hague, Gerry Adams, David Trimble, John Hume), so have other personalities (Bill Gates, Peter Greenaway, Salman Rushdie, Hugh Grant), or music groups (The Spice Girls, The Cranberries). Among other acquisitions we can find Dolly the sheep, New Labour, millennium dome, Viagra and Zippergate.

There's no doubt that the Second Edition is a much better reference book than the 1992 one. Complaints? I have a few. Few, to be exact. Just that the map on page 361 which is called Great Britain is in fact the map of the British Isles and nowhere in the dictionary can we find the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom explained. On p.1143 while recognising some famous film scenes we read the names of Jack Lemon and Orsen Welles instead of Lemmon and Orson. And when presenting some famous works of art (p.1141) the authors omitted to say that 'The Birth of Venus' is by Botticelli.

Evidently those slips are confined to the colour illustrations. The texts are informative, updated, concise, much more so than in the first edition. Personally I miss some funny pictures which disappeared from the earlier edition, especially those of a yuppie and an explorer. And the couch potato has definitely changed sex. Now, it's male. I wonder why.


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