Between libretto and lice

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In connection with my difficult work on Language Log's "Financial Good News" desk, where things have been arduous and slow, I was looking something up in the American Heritage Dictionary earlier today (possibly liberalism, possible lien; to tell you the truth, I have forgotten what — something beginning with L, but I got sidetracked), when I noticed something. In between libretto and lice it has a definition for Libyan Desert. The definition reports (and I just know you are going to get there ahead of me) that it is a desert, and it mainly is in (I know, I know, you are jostling me aside in your eagerness to predict it without having looked) Libya. Parts of it are in Egypt and parts of Sudan, actually; and no doubt there are areas that could be argued to be outlying regions of it that are in Chad (the dictionary did not deny it), but the Libyan Desert really is mostly a Libyan desert. The question that struck me was: wherever the hell it is, what the hell is it doing in a dictionary?

Do they plan to list the names of all places in the world, and give each one a dictionary entry? That would certainly beef up the size of the volume. All over the world human beings have named bits and pieces of the planet's surface right down to individual rocks. They name hills, valleys, rivers, streams, paths, hollows, mountains, tracks, roads, streets, lanes, fields, plateaus, cliffs, ridges, outcrops, islands, peninsulas, villages, townships, towns, cities, counties, provinces, states, countries, continents, channels, seas, oceans… The dictionary is going to be really big when these are all gathered in. Paul J J Payack is going to find it really easy to come up with his million words.

Why aren't all these names consigned to encyclopedias and atlases? They all have the same meaning, really: Kanchenjunga is a word whose meaning is that it is the name of a mountain best identified by saying that it is the one known as Kanchenjunga; Beechcroft Gardens is (apart from being the street on which I live, which is a contingent fact, and will be a temporary one unless the man across the street from me does something about the hair-trigger car alarm on his Porsche) a word (or is it a phrase?) whose meaning is that it is the name of a street best identified by saying that it is the one known as Beechcroft Gardens; and the Libyan Desert is a phrase whose meaning is that it is the name of a desert best identified by saying that it is the one known as the Libyan Desert. This is lexicography? Then whither geography? I have decided I just don't get it. Couldn't we figure out from the noun desert and the adjective Libyan what the proper name Libyan Desert probably stands for? Are we so dumb?

It seems to me that a dictionary should be there to provide entries for the things one could not know: who would have thought that rhubarb would have the name rhubarb? It's so surprising it's almost incredible. If you had asked me to guess, I would have been picking it out of millions of possible words of that length. So it goes in the dictionary. But I think I would have been able to guess that the main Libyan desert might be called the Libyan Desert.

Including place names because they name important places or are mentioned a lot in texts is a fool's game anyway. The American Heritage Dictionary has entries for Columbia and Columbus, but not Columbine. The third of these (sadly) is probably the most famous now, because of a school massacre and a film by Michael Moore. The dictionary has been caught on the hop. Egg on face! Yet it was needless. Words with capital letters are names of particular people or places or edifices, and their meanings are essentially the same. Dictionary entries? You don't need no stinkin' dictionary entries. Am I wrong? Am I being silly here? Has anyone ever looked up "Libyan Desert" in a dictionary to see what it means?


  1. Jens Fiederer said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    Not only does it seem obvious, as far as I can tell it is really just part of the Sahara. Hopefully your dictionary, as long as it is going to list place names, has an entry for that; it seems both more important and less intuitive.

  2. Kit said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    Well, if they haven't before, they will now…

    Seriously, though, reading this just after seeing this [1] is particularly thought-provoking. In the linked talk, McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary, seems to argue that we should take advantage of our freedom from printed texts to include more and more words in dictionaries, but she doesn't address the issues of proper nouns. I'm not sure quite where I want to take this idea, but I'll definitely mull it over.


  3. RoaldFalcon said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

    The actual entry in the AHD does state that it is part of the Sahara.

    Given the level of geographic knowledge in America, it is not inconceivable to me that a student may read a reference to the Lybian Desert (perhaps in some Vampire novel) and decide to look it up in the dictionary unaware that Lybia is the name of some country.

    Yes, there are many level of geographic detail that are not included, but I would presume (I am guessing here) that the editors of AHD have some criteria that they have established for inclusion or exclusion of geographic information. The fact that the policy does not include "omit deserts named for their major national location" doesn't seem like a great oversight to me.

    That's just my opinion.

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    Don't lexicographers, like cartographers, often insert clinkers to trap plagiarists? I seem to recall "boojum" used in this capacity in a 2nd edition Webster's and omitted from the ("despised") 3rd, as mentioned in Mermin's "Boojums All the Way through". (On a side note, wasn't the 3rd despised because it was considered excessively descriptivist?)

  5. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    But would you have guessed that the large desert in northwestern Australia is called the Great Sandy Desert? Surprising enough to be included in the dictionary, I would have thought …

  6. Alan Gunn said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    Some dictionaries contain lists of place names, without definitions. This was once useful for checking spellings, but now that we have the Internet it's less useful. I think some of them also had names of people, perhaps with dates of birth and death; again, technology would seem to make this practice unnecessary.

  7. language hat said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    Different dictionaries make different decisions about what to do with proper names. Whatever your theoretical objections to their inclusion, people do in fact look them up in dictionaries; the question is where to put them. Merriam-Webster puts them in separate biographical and geographical appendices; AHD puts them in the main text, which is in an obvious sense more useful. I fail to see why any outrage is called for. And to address the ostensible object of your complaint, it is perfectly possible that there could be a place called "Libyan Desert" somewhere other than Libya, so it is not true that the definition provides no information.

    If this was meant as a joke post, I apologize in advance for missing the joke.

  8. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    And out goes pieplant, except of course to define rhubarb.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

    Once space considerations go out the window, it looks attractive to include Grosvenor Mews (an old address of mine) and even to go beyond pointing out that it's the place best identified as the one named "Grosvenor Mews" by saying that it's "off Grosvenor Close".

    But then as space considerations go out the window, linked data comes in through it, and so we throw all these names out, and instead when the user searches for "10 Downing Street" we combine a number of separately maintained sources to produce a map showing where it is, a history of the building and the address, and a dictionary entry on its use as a metonym. Now the user is re-assured that he knows how to spell it, where it is, and still he's given the opportunity to find out that it means the Prime Minister, and thus the Government of the United Kingdom and see who first used the address in this sense in print.

  10. Catanea said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    Well, as an anglophone member of a not exclusively anglophone family as soon as we discovered the Petit Robert 2 (or II or "Dos" as we foolishly call it, living in Spain as we do) we bought it. And despite the internet, we may buy a more recent one. It is very handy and civilized to have a Dictionary (not an encyclopedia or otherly titled reference work) of proper names. I get a little fed up with the habit of the French of recasting EVEN LATIN PROPER NAMES into French orthography (I often remark upon the superiority of English in not anglifying them) but it is a very useful volume to have around the house. IS there such a thing in English that I have never run across? But there is a different quality of having a European, and indeed, French perspective on those proper names one might wish to look up… To be sure, the Libyan Desert sounds like a definition in and of itself. It only requires a map.

  11. David Gorsline said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    Writing as a volunteer reader-recorder of textbooks, I use AHD and other sources to tell me how to pronounce something. In this role, I care less about where and what Kanchenjunga is than I do about how to say it properly.

    Writing as a student of biomes, I might point out that the Colorado Desert is in California.

  12. Des Power said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:12 pm


    But the "Great Sandy Desert" is in the Macquarie of course :-)

    "a large, extremely arid desert area in northern inland WA south of the Kimberleys and north of the tropic of Capricorn". (Not much help if you don't know where the Kimberleys are!)

    The Macquarie seems to me to include many more than usual proper names, and I'm inclined to agree with Melvyn in querying whether a dictionary is the best place for many of them.

  13. Jongseong Park said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Along the lines of what Catanea said, English might get away with not Anglicizing proper nouns, but not Korean, which uses a different alphabet. Orthography of proper nouns derived from other languages in Korean is a complicated issue—I devote a whole Korean-language blog to the subject. I for one appreciate that the Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon, the on-line dictionary published by the National Institute of the Korean Language, includes proper nouns so people can look up how to spell something like Eindhoven in Korean.

  14. Karl Weber said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    Nathan Myers: How could "boojum" be used as a "clinker" dictionary entry to trap plagiarists, when it is of course a "real" word–as readers of Lewis Carroll's "Hunting of the Snark" are well aware.

  15. Randy said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    On the back of my Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998 Edition), it is advertised that it has an "encyclopedic element", with 6000 place names, 6000 biographies, over 300 mythical figures, and 400 entries for historical events.

    If the purpose if a dictionary is to include words, whole words, and nothing but words, then anything that begins with a capital letter ought to be held in contempt of corpus.

    If the purpose of a dictionary is to provide a convenient reference for things that we are likely to come across while reading, then I don't think short entries on things like people and place names are inappropriate. They're not definitions, of course, but some brief information may be of use to the person who is also interested in definitions.

    I had a similar reaction to yours when I saw that the Canadian Oxford had an encyclopedic element to it (though blogging had not yet surfaced to the mainstream, and so I had nowhere to express my frustrations). Since then, there have been a number of times where I've found this extra information to be quite handy.

  16. Mark P said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    I don't see a reason to include geographical names in a dictionary unless there is some particular reason. I was going to use "coals to Newcastle" as an example of a city that might be included so that the meaning of that phrase could be found. Unfortunately, the dictionary I use defines Newcastle as an industrial city in a particular location, but it gives no indication of what "coals to Newcastle" means. So maybe there's a reason to include Libyan Desert, but the dictionary omits mentioning it. Maybe it's something like, "It's like taking sand to the Libyan Desert."

  17. Clarissa said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    If a dictionary is to include place names at all, how is every reader to know that the Libyan Desert is not like Kansas City (Missouri), or any of a great many cities that are really towns, Forests that are really cities, mountains that are really hills, and what have you?

  18. Robert T McQuaid said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    In the days before computer typesetting dictionary makers got into the habit of leaving a few junk words on each page, so that at the next printing they could be thrown overboard for a neologism.

  19. HP said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    Another conceivable justification would be if Libyan Desert had a pronunciation that is significantly different from the words Libyan or desert. "It's spelled Libyan Desert, but it's pronounced 'lee-Byangh di-Zehr.'" But that's not true in this case.

    On a side note, according to Wikimedia Commons, this is apparently composed primarily of semolina, honey, dates, and almonds.

  20. Paul Kay said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    Echoing some earlier comments, the fact that the French publish (and sell) dictionaries of proper names, including place names, suggests that folks find a use for such material, as does the fact that various English language dictionary makers included place names in a variety of ways. The point about the Libyan Desert not necessarily being located in Libya is also well taken, as may be appreciated by considering names like French River (MN), or Lisbon Falls (ME).

  21. mud and flame said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    A boojum is also a tree native to the Sonoran Desert.

    Native, in fact, mostly to parts that are not in Sonora, Mexico.

  22. HP said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    A quick followup: I thought it was funny enough that the photo in the link above was labeled Libyan_Dessert.jpg, but according to Wikipedia, "Asida is [Libya's] traditional desert." Wikikarma is restored.

    (I'm going to look crazy when these are both corrected by zealous editors.)

  23. Lazar said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    @ Nigel: Australia clearly wins the award for Most Nind-Numbingly Obvious Desert Name.

    @ HP: It's spelled "Raymond Luxury Yacht", but it's pronounced "Throatwobbler Mangrove".

  24. John Cowan said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    I think that the inclusion of proper names results from the Great Dictionary Wars of the first half of the 20th century, in which each dictionary-maker competed to issue the largest dictionary (subject to physical size constraints, of course), "large" being defined by the number of entries (not necessarily headwords). Americans (and Canadians, apparently) have as a result come to expect a certain amount of encyclopedic and gazetteer information in their dictionaries.

    The OED does not include "Libya", much less "Libyan Desert", but does include "Libyan", though the definitions seem less than helpful: "A. adj. Of or pertaining to Libya, the ancient name of a large country in North Africa, or to the modern state of Libya. By some philologists used as a designation for the Berber language, or for the group of mod. Hamitic langs. to which Berber belongs. B. n. a. An inhabitant of ancient or modern Libya. b. The Libyan language."

  25. Bill Poser said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:00 am

    "boojum" is even more real than you might think. The physicist N. David Mermin (who used to write a column in Physics Today) succeeded in getting "boojum" into a paper in the very prestigious journal Physical Review Letters as the name for a geometric pattern on the surface of one of the phases of superfluid helium 3.

    I feel a great kinship for Mermin (whom I have never met) as I am, to my knowlege, not only the first but the only person ever to get into print in a serious context the word "sesquidecenium".

  26. sharon said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:23 am

    I s'pose there's no particular reason on principle to exclude place names from dictionaries. Although it seems reasonable to ask: is a description of a place (which is what is being provided) quite the same thing as a definition?

    But in practice, why put them in dictionaries when you have other more specialised reference works (atlases, gazetteers) that can do a better job? And why clutter up dictionaries with this information when most people don't look up place names in dictionaries?

  27. James D said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 4:13 am

    Or maybe the bored lexicographer was commenting on the lack of words such as *libument and *lication.

  28. Ray Girvan said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 4:53 am

    The OED has some good ones I'd never heard of, including:

    libricide: The ‘killing’ of a book (rare)
    Libs: The south-west wind (poet.rare).
    libstick: Lovage (obs.)
    licca: A West Indian tree (Tobinia emarginata, Sapindus spinosus, or Xanthoxylum emarginatum).

  29. Graham said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:25 am

    Catanea: "I get a little fed up with the habit of the French of recasting EVEN LATIN PROPER NAMES into French orthography (I often remark upon the superiority of English in not anglifying them)"
    But English does, at least sometimes – what about Virgil and Ovid, for starters?

    And reading the spines of the print version of OED2 gives some interesting words: bazouki (mis-spelling of bouzouki), and chalypsography, to name but two. And the word immediately preceding bazouki is bazoom.

    But my favourite volume of any encyclopaedia/dictionary must be the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, volume 2: Back to Bolivia.

  30. language hat said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    I don't see a reason to include geographical names in a dictionary unless there is some particular reason.

    The reason is that people expect to find them there. If you for some reason object to them, I'm sure you can find small dictionaries without them, but the makers of dictionaries have to consider a wider public than you and Melvyn Quince. Yes, there are specialized dictionaries for biographical and geographical names, as there are for etymologies; should etymologies also be excluded on that basis? "Sorry, bub, the windshield wipers — I mean, the added facts you were expecting — are extra. Buy those books over there."

  31. Michael Waddell said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    When Oxford's Philological Society began compiling the OED back in the 1860s, they initially planned to omit proper names for the reasons mentioned in this article. "African", for instance, was not included in the earliest published sample pages. But by the time they got to the "AN"s they discovered they needed to define "anti-American", since the word has meant different things in different historical periods, and they couldn't well list "anti-American" without also listing "American". So their policy changed; to this day the OED includes "African" (though not "Africa").

  32. Darryl S said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    I often look up proper nouns in my dictionary (well, when I don't look them up online). As language hat suggests, I expect to find them there. But my dictionary specifically labels itself an "encyclopedic dictionary" and has a bit in the introduction that talks about why it includes things that might not be considered part of the vocabulary of the language.

    My personal opinion is that anything that if a proper noun is so well-known that it is used in a way that assumes the reader knows what it is (i.e. it does not include a definition and the work is aimed at a general audience), it is reasonable to include in a dictionary. I wouldn't denigrate a dictionary that declined such proper nouns, but I would expect it to be reasonably consistent.

    Either way, the specific example of "Libyan Desert" seems both self-evident and uncommon enough that I'm surprised at its inclusion in a dictionary that does not aim to be encyclopedic.

  33. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    To Bill Poser: sesquidecennium sounds cute, but what's wrong with standard Latin quindecennium?

  34. TootsNYC said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    The Libyan Desert isn't in *my* dictionary–because my dictionary has a "geography" section in the back. And a biographical one.

    American Heritage lumps them all together, so that you only have to look in one place. I sort of like that idea, though it does lead to sort of silly things like those you describe.

    Putting in a listing for Libyan Desert does serve a use.
    -it tells me that there is a recognized proper name for this geographic region–it's not *just* the part of the Sahara that happens to be in Libya; it's a term (and an identity) that other people use for a specific region that is also in MORE than Libya. "in the Libyan desert" means something different than "in the Libyan Desert."

    -it gives someone a place to tell me that the commonly used form of the name is Libyan Desert, and not Libya Desert.

    -it gives you a place to tell me that it's part of the Sahara, and not actually freestanding.

    But the biggest thing is, the American Heritage is not a "just the spellings and word definitions" dictionary.

    It is a combination dictionary, geographical dictionary, and biographical dictionary.

  35. TootsNYC said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    From my AH's flyleaf: (all caps, mine)


    The most up-to-date and fully defined biographical and geographic entries are LISTED CONVENIENTLY in the main A-Z body of the dictionary.

  36. blahedo said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    My thought on reading the post was that rhubarb is not so very different from Libyan Desert or especially Kanchenjunga: it refers to the plant conventionally referred to as "rhubarb". Unless you are showing a picture (or offering smell or taste tests or something), there's very little you can do to *define* what "rhubarb" means.

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    The clinkeriness of "boojum" in Webster's 2nd Edition would seem to depend crucially on how the same edition treated "snark" and "bandersnatch". But I suspect Robert T McQuaid's post above has elucidated the matter.

  38. Nathan Myers said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    blahedo: Identifying rhubarb's genus and species, its native range, era of domestication, culinary use, and etymology are all helpful. Why not?

  39. David Marjanović said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    I get a little fed up with the habit of the French of recasting EVEN LATIN PROPER NAMES into French orthography (I often remark upon the superiority of English in not anglifying them)

    It doesn't anglify the spelling that often, but very commonly the pronunciation of a name — or even a word like data — is anglified in several different ways by different native speakers. Occasionally it happens that the participants of a scientific congress don't understand each other.

    Another conceivable justification would be if Libyan Desert had a pronunciation that is significantly different from the words Libyan or desert. "It's spelled Libyan Desert, but it's pronounced 'lee-Byangh di-Zehr.'" But that's not true in this case.

    Sure it is: when you hear the word, you cannot possibly guess how to distribute i and y. And indeed, RoaldFalcon gets it wrong in the 3rd comment in this very thread.

    Libs: The south-west wind (poet.rare).

    I wonder if that's a Greek or Latin back-formation from Libya.

  40. vic said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    Not language, exactly, but regarding dictionaries and encyclopedias: Many years ago I was in my manager's office waiting for him to get off the phone, and started browsing a book on his reference shelf. When he got off the phone, I remarked that it seemed strange that this dictionary only contained nouns. He replied that it was an encyclopedia.

  41. marie-lucie said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

    Catanea: "I get a little fed up with the habit of the French of recasting EVEN LATIN PROPER NAMES into French orthography"

    As a person at least familiar with Spanish, you may not realize to what extent Spanish does the same thing. What is the origin of Spanish names such as Emilio, Pedro, Pablo, Antonio, Felipe, and dozens of others, if not Latin (which itself borrowed some of them from Greek or other languages)?

    This very old habit is shared by several other European languages as well, especially (but not only) those of the Romance family. At one time, everything of a serious nature was written in Latin, and when translating, names were adjusted to the equivalent in the current (spoken) languages. For instance, many names of Christian saints, adopted in earlier centuries as popular names in Christian countries, have local equivalents, eg Pedro, Pierre, Peter, Pyotr (all from Petrus or its Greek original Petros) all refer to the very same saint. Similarly for the names of various historical figures, eg Nerone, Néron, Nero, or Platone, Platon, Plato (note that English sticks to the Latin nominative form, while the names in the Romance languages follow the regular evolution based on the accusative form which became the base form for Proto-Romance and the daughter languages). Similarly also for more recent names which were translated or adapted, eg Michel-Ange as the French name (exceptionally pronouncing the ch as k) of Michelangelo Buonarotti.

    French works dealing with ancient history keep the traditional French names for well-known persons (eg Marc Aurèle for Marcus Aurelius, Sénèque for Seneca, Pline for Plinius (known in English as Pliny) or Tite-Live for Titus Livius (known in English as Livy), Aristote for Aristoteles (known in English as Aristotle), but keep the Latin or Greek name for lesser known figures, (or those whose names would become too short eg Titus and Brutus, who appear as Tite and Brute in some 17th century plays). The names of popes follow the old tradition, as in the name by which the current occupant of the Vatican is known: officially Latin Benedictus, but Benedetto in Italy and Benoît in French, and even Benedict rather than Benedictus in English (just like Virgil not Virgilius). His predecessor Johannis Paulus was Jean-Paul in French, Juan Pablo in Spanish, and John Paul in English. There are dozens (at least) of such examples in Romance languages, and many where even English has its own equivalents for such names.

    I recall a similar discussion on LL some months ago, about pronouncing the names of various cities: names of well-known ones have been in the languages for centuries and the current divergences in pronunciation and spelling are not recent but reflect this fact, so in my opinion there is no need to change them in order to "respect" the pronunciations of the inhabitants.

  42. marie-lucie said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    About including proper names in a dictionary: the Petit Larousse has two sections, one for regular words (with pictures is appropriate) and another for proper names of significant places and people, with short but relevant descriptions. So for instance, a derivative like the adjective africain(e) is in the regular section, and the word Afrique on which it is based is placed in the other section. This avoids the awkwardness of mixing up the two kinds of information needed, while keeping the related words in a single volume. Reading the encyclopedic section is very informative, as maps of countries and pictures of people, with their relevant dates, are included: for instance, all the kings of France called LOUIS (up to Louis XVIII) are listed, with their pictures if possible, making it easier to keep them apart.

  43. Jane said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 5:28 am

    I hope readers find this of interest. I worked as an English teacher in Tripoli, Libya for a while and the students were confused when I asked them what they call the Sahara desert in their own language. I learnt that Sahara means desert in Libyan and for all my questioning, I was unable to elicit a 'proper' name, leading me to understand they refer to the area as the desert (in Libyan) and we refer to it as the desert desert to their ears!

  44. Merri said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:33 am

    >Couldn't we figure out from the noun desert and the adjective Libyan what the proper name Libyan Desert probably stands for? <

    Mmh. What about Guinea pigs ?
    Ah yes, proper names. What about Yorktown ? What about Mosan, a group of native American languages, which any Belgian would interpret as 'related to the river Meuse' ?

    It wouldn't be absurd that words or locutions be present in the dictionary, with no definition. This would imply that their meaning is what everybody would guess, letting know that the word indeed exists, while saving space. By the way, there is at least one dictionary which uses this : Larousse's Dictionnaire Officiel du Scrabble (in French).

  45. Ken Grabach said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    Mr (Dr?) Quince's post raises a question in passing, and elaborated in closing, that I have wished for with reference books for place names. I am a maps librarian, and work with place names and names for geographical features regularly. Encyclopedias, of course, cover place names and features. Atlases (at least their indexes) list names and features that appear on the maps. I refer you most particularly to the Times Atlas of the World (maps by Bartholomew), with a magisterial index that is a reference work that could stand on its own. Why? It includes location not only by the grid system of the atlas plates, but also the geographical coordinates of longitude and latitude. One could find the entries on any other map, not the atlas plates alone. This quality makes the atlas's index another form of reference work, useful for geographers and map users, a 'Gazetteer'. The Columbia Gazetteer or the World, in three volumes, has more complete entries for each place or feature than the American Heritage Dictionary would allow.

    So, indeed, what are such entries doing in this lexical dictionary? Especially, why are they there if the definitions are self-referential. (I thought that was contrary to lexicograhical principles? I ask sincerely since I am not a lexicographer.) In other words the geographical entries in this dictionary differ completely in their form from the defined words comprising the bulk of the text. And as noted, are completely devoid of any true definitions.

  46. The other Mark P said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 4:17 am

    My old Collins not only has places, but for some obscure reason, populations too. Worse I frequently resort to using them, generally to solve disagreements about how big a place is.

    One issue is users who do not necessarily know the language very well. In France I would often hear a word and be unsure if it was a proper name or not. A dictionary which combined the most common Geographical terms would have been quite useful.

  47. Colin John said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 7:32 am

    Just a thought, but I suspect that the name 'the Libyan Desert' may predate the modern country of Libya, which was only created in 1949. and was previously split into Tripolitania and Cyreneica (and other splits in earlier times). Libya existed as a vaguer (tribal-related?) name before that. This might explain why the Libyan Desert extends into Egypt. The historical aspect would therefore make the entry more justifiable – how would you otherwise know what was meant by a reference to 'the Libyan Desert' in a source from the 1930s?

  48. Suzanne said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    "But my favourite volume of any encyclopaedia/dictionary must be the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, volume 2: Back to Bolivia." (from Graham)

    I've always liked the spine label from this volume of the Britannica: "Metaphysics to Norway". We used to wonder what kind of charity it would be…

  49. Anton Sherwood said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 5:29 am

    Speaking of proper names and the AHD, I'm offended puzzled that it has separate entries for Neptune¹ (the god), Neptune² (Poetic. The ocean or sea), Neptune³ (the planet); similarly two entries each for Andromeda, Argo, Cepheus, Ceres, Hercules, Hydra, Jupiter, Orion, Pegasus, Perseus, Pleiades, Pluto, Saturn, Venus, Vesta — but only one for the Hyades.

    Weirdly, Mercury (the planet) is under mercury (the metal) with no note that it be capitalized! (Perhaps this has been corrected since 1981.)

  50. Anton Sherwood said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    I see that strikeouts are not among the allowed tags. (I meant to strike out 'offended'.)

  51. Anton Sherwood said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    If the Roman proper names descended into Romance languages like other Latin words, they'd likely be a lot less recognizable than Marc-Aurèle.

    I applied Geoff's Sound Change Applier to some Latin names and found that the Castilian form of Antônium ought to be Anduño. Presumably baptism in Latin has been a conservative influence.

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