Well, my copy of the new English-Chinese Chinese-English (hereafter ECCE) Oxford Chinese Dictionary (hereafter OCD) from Oxford University Press has arrived, and I must admit that it is very big and very impressive. There has been a lot of buzz about this dictionary in the last couple of weeks, most of it generated by their own publicity department, working with the media.
An advertising flier; video of an interview with the English editor of the dictionary: and replies from the editor to questions posed on a Chinese forum.
Oxford University Press does have a right to be proud of what they have achieved with this large, one-volume dictionary, but it is by no means the be-all and end-all of ECCE dictionaries.
First of all, it's bulky, well over 2,000 pages. That's all right for a desk dictionary, but you're definitely not going to carry it around with you.
It's not my intention to write a full-dress review of this dictionary, but — in leafing through it — on every page I spotted things that I am not entirely comfortable with. The very first place my eye alighted upon (CE 286a): a box for Hanyu Pinyin states that "Each syllable is made up of an initial consonant, a vowel and a tone mark." All three parts of that statement are, strictly speaking, incorrect (many syllables begin with a vowel, what comes after the initial is often a digraph or a vowel plus nasal, and a neutral syllable does not have a tone mark).
The second place my eye alighted upon (CE 999): a box explaining the difference between zì 字 and cí 詞. Naturally, this made me very excited, because it's one of the key themes in all my classes when I touch upon Chinese script and language. I had thought that the editors might take advantage of the opportunity to make the linguistic point that zì 字 signifies a "character" and that cí 詞 signifies a "word." Instead, they devote about a third of an entire page to discussing the nuances of translating these two terms into English. Strangely enough, the box on EC 111 discussing the difference between "Characters and words" does a much better job of distinguishing them.
The third place I happened upon (CE 123) offers a box on cíxù 詞序 ("word order"). There are 23 examples of 2-character (in one case 3-character) expressions in Chinese whose order is reversed in English, e.g., wényì 文藝 (lit., "literature and art" –> "art and literature" in English), but I am not so sure that all of their examples hold true in all cases, e.g., xīnjiù 新舊 (lit., "new and old" –> supposedly "old and new" in English). Furthermore, the concept of word order is much larger than merely the reversal of two-term expressions.
The fourth place I looked at (CE 973c) is a box entitled Zhōngguó wénzì 中國文字 ("Chinese writing / script"). It begins thus: "Ideograms used for writing Chinese…." Since the notion of "ideogram," as falsely applied to the Chinese writing system, is one of my pet peeves, I was sorely disappointed that the editors of the OCD had invoked it.
The fifth place I chanced to look at (CE 1011-1013), the last section of the dictionary, is about zìmǔ cí 字母詞 ("letter words"). Naturally, I was delighted to see this section, because it shows how the alphabet has become an integral part of the Chinese writing system. But there are plenty of lost opportunities in this list. For instance, AAAA jí lǚyóu qū AAAA 級旅遊區 is defined as "AAAA tourist attraction," which is not very helpful for the typical dictionary user, and AA zhì 制 is defined as "go Dutch" (nice to know, but one wonders why?). Then there's T-xùshān T恤衫, defined simply as "T-shirt." Fair enough, but compare this with the definition in the ABC comprehensive dictionary (which, incidentally, because of its unique alphabetical ordering system, does not have to sequester lettered words in a separate section at the back of the dictionary, but enters them in the main order of the dictionary): "N. <loan.> T-shirt (borrowed through Cantonese, where xù is pronounced seut) M: jiàn." BTW, saying T-xùshān T恤衫 in Mandarin is redundant; it's like saying "T-shirt shirt," since T-seut T恤 in Cantonese already manifestly means "T-shirt." One wonders what Mandarin speakers think the xù 恤 syllable is for when they say T-xùshān T恤衫. It is noteworthy that T-xù T恤 occurs far more frequently than T-xùshān T恤衫 on the Internet.
This leads me to the observation that there has been a lot of discussion about the relative merits of this new OCD and the ABC dictionary. (Parenthetically, in the interest of fairness and full disclosure, I should note that I am the founder and editor of the ABC Chinese dictionary series at the University of Hawai'i Press.) The biggest difference, which anyone who dips into the two dictionaries side-by-side will immediately recognize, is that the ABC dictionary is arranged by single sort alphabetical order (just like an English dictionary or Japanese dictionaries such as that from Kenkyusha or Sanseido), whereas the OCD is arranged by head characters. The alphabetical finding system of the ABC dictionary makes it by far the fastest and most user-friendly dictionary of Chinese for speakers of Mandarin. And it is the only dictionary of Mandarin that enables you to look up a word or expression you hear spoken by others but have no idea how to write. (Bob Bauer is currently putting the finishing touches on an ABC dictionary of Cantonese, and we hope to have Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Pekingese, and other versions of the ABC dictionary in the future.) If you don't know the sound of a given character you encounter in reading, the ABC dictionary has a radical index, just as does the OCD. I should point out that — in the vast majority of cases where people who have 4th-year level Chinese or above — one usually knows the pronunciation of the characters that make up a given term, but one is not familiar with the term itself. At least the OCD arranges the head characters by sound, not by radicals, stroke order, or some other arcane, shape-based finding system (of which there are countless clumsy ones in existence).
The stark differences in their finding systems for Chinese terms are by no means all that distinguishes these two dictionaries. Without going into detail (I could easily write a hundred page review on this subject if I had the time), I would just say for now that the new OCD has the look, feel, and design of a dictionary made in China mainly for Chinese. The majority of the editorial staff are from China, and the dictionary clearly draws heavily upon the resources, expertise, and experience of Oxford University Press's partner in China, the Foreign Languages Teaching and Research Press. The marketing and promotion are directed primarily at Chinese learning and using English. Considering that there are probably more individuals learning and using English in China than there are in the English-speaking countries of the world, that is not a bad decision. There are many subtle, and not-so-subtle, indications that this dictionary is aimed chiefly at Chinese, not native English speakers. On the cover itself, we find Yīng Hàn-Hàn Yīng 英漢－漢英, not English-Chinese Chinese-English, even when sold in the United States.
In contrast, the ABC dictionaries have been made in America chiefly for non-native learners and users of Mandarin. This will change somewhat when the new ABC ECCE dictionary comes out later this year, since it makes a very determined attempt to be of equal value both to native and non-native speakers of Mandarin and of English. The new ABC ECCE dictionary will be truly portable and will have approximately 30,000 entries in each half. It is difficult for me to estimate the number of entries in the OCD. There seem to be over 70,000 English entries and roughly the same amount of Chinese entries grouped under approximately 7,500 head characters. So far, the only overt declaration of the size of the OCD I've been able to find is that it has "670,000 words, phrases, and translations," but it's not evident to me how the publishers arrived at that figure and how they break it down.
I would not want to close this already long post without emphasizing that I think the new OCD is a major achievement. It is comprehensive, generally reliable, has made an effort to incorporate new words, has many useful features (explains how to use a telephone, provides form letters, pays due attention to grammar, and so forth; of particular interest to me is the fact that all of the abbreviations listed for text messaging in Chinese [R28] are composed of Roman letters).
I expect that the OCD will sell very well in China, and will certainly recoup all of the undoubtedly heavy expenses that went into producing it.
The OCD is modestly priced (I bought a copy for $54 from Amazon).
I'm happy to own a copy of the OCD, and I'm confident that I will benefit from it during the coming years. However, the first place I will always turn to look up a Mandarin word is the ABC dictionary — simply because it saves me so much time and because the definitions are concise and reliable.