Oxford Chinese Dictionary

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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.

Raymond Zhong: The Foreign Devil's Dictionary – WSJ.com* (September 15, 2010)

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 字 and 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 字 signifies a "character" and that 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 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 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.


  1. John Thayer Jensen said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    I am trying (in a small way) to learn characters – can anyone recommend a relatively compact Chinese-English dictionary that has both traditional and simplified characters? I have the Collins paperback which appears only to have simplified.


  2. Sili said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    English-Chinese Chinese-English (hereafter ECCE) Oxford Chinese Dictionary (hereafter OCD)

    Not "Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptang Zoo Boing Zow Zing!"?

  3. Claw said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    @John Thayer Jensen: I would recommend Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary by Rick Harbaugh for that purpose. It is the printed version of the online dictionary at zhongwen.com. It uses traditional characters, but will indicate the simplified version of each character if there is one. It's primarily a character dictionary, rather than a word dictionary, but it does have a pinyin word index in the back that to a limited extent satisfies Mair's preferred method of "[looking] up a word or expression you hear spoken by others but have no idea how to write".

    Its primary method of indexing characters is rather unique and takes getting used to, but its strength is in finding similar characters with shared components (which is useful when you forget how to write a character but can remember parts of it). He calls the trees that comprise this index a "genealogical chart" (hence the title), though by no means should it be taken to indicate the etymology of the characters (the author makes this clear in the foreword).

  4. John Thayer Jensen said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    @Claw – thanks much! I will look into that.


  5. Brendan said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    One of the differences between the ABC and the OCD (heh) might be in the target audiences. I haven't picked up a copy of the new OCD yet, but older editions were targeted pretty clearly at Chinese learners of English, rather than Anglophone learners of Chinese, and the decision to continue organizing by headword rather than Pinyin might indicate the same focus in this edition. (Not that that's a criticism by any means!) The inclusion of form letters in this edition is a nice new feature, and one I'm looking forward to checking out.

    @John Thayer Jensen – If you're looking for a character dictionary, I'd recommend the bilingual edition of the Xinhua dictionary, which saw me through my first few years of Chinese study. It includes both simplified and traditional variants of characters, has clear and reasonably-sized type — something many Chinese dictionaries don't — and unlike the Zhongwen.com dictionary, it uses the standard method for indexing Chinese characters, so that once you graduate to a more heavy-duty dictionary, you'll be able to bring your hard-won lookup skills over with you.

  6. Plane said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    What exactly does "single-sort alphabetical order" mean?

    Although the fourth edition of the Kenkyusha did use ABC順, the fifth edition uses 五十音順. (As I understand it, this change was made because most users of the dictionary were native Japanese.) If I am understanding you correctly, both of these orders are described as "single-sort alphabetical", as opposed to say, the New Nelson, which lists words under their first character? Is that the distinction you are making here?

    Is a syllabary considered a type of alphabet? (I thought it was not.)

  7. John Thayer Jensen said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    And thank you, Brendan, for that suggestion.

  8. Tezuk said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    May I ask what romanisation systems are you intending to use for your Cantonese and Taiwanese dictionaries? Fingers crossed they are Jyutping and Luoma.

  9. kkopp said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    Since I think it is a work of genius that would have made my life considerably easier when I began studying Chinese in the early 70s I was showing the ABC dictionary the other day to one of our best students and she was amused but unimpressed. She was unaware of why it would be an advantage BECAUSE SHE HAS NEVER USED A DICTIONARY even though she has completed two intensive summer programs at Berkeley and a semester in Taiwan at Shida. Why? Because she only uses ONLINE dictionary resources and has never had occasion to look characters up by radical, etc. She simply mouses over them and uses a plug in that renders their pronunciation, tone, and meaning….

  10. Adara said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    @kkopp, that seems to be the way most of those learning to use Chinese (in the practical, everyday sense) are going. I've never used one.

  11. Janne said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 2:28 am

    I study Japanese but have never looked at Chinese. I was a little surprised that there's enough overlap between 字 and 詞 in Chinese that presumably authoritative sources can argue about how to separate them. In Japanese it seem completely clearcut, with 字 standing for a single character, be it kanji, kana, romaji or numeral; and 詞 meaning word.

    Single-character-only words may be much rarer in Japanese than in Chinese (single-kanji words do not usually appear without a trailing string of kana), and I guess this may account for the difference.

  12. Seralt said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    @Dr Mair: Would you know of any Chinese-Chinese dictionaries that have *word* etymologies? I might be using the wrong search terms on google, but all I can ever seem to find are character etymologies, which are less-than-ideal when I want to, for example, find out how/when 電話 replaced 德津風。

    @Janne: I think the confusion dates from early contact with China, when Chinese was viewed as monosyllabic (which was certainly more true of Classical Chinese than contemporary Mandarin), and Chinese characters were regarded as ideograms. Hence, the historical (and seemingly deeply-ingrained) translation of 字 as "word" instead of "character; glyph". This is further compounded by the fact that many monolingual Chinese speakers (especially of the non-linguistic variety) will have trouble identifying "word" boundaries.
    Also, isn't 語 a more appropriate translation for "word" in Japanese? My understanding is that 詞 relates more to "diction; speech; phrasing".

  13. Janne said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    @Seralt: "Also, isn't 語 a more appropriate translation for "word" in Japanese? My understanding is that 詞 relates more to "diction; speech; phrasing"."

    Well, yes and no. 語 means "language" and can stand for "word" in compounds. In compounds 詞 is used as "word" in a narrower linguistic sense: 動詞 and 名詞 is verb and noun ("moving word" and "name word") for instance.

    But the common standalone Japanese word for "word" is ことば (kotoba), which is normally written 言葉 (言 also means "word" in addition to "speak"). But 詞 has the same kun-reading and can presumably be used in some cases. It's not uncommon for the same word to have more than one alternative character or characters, each with a different shade of meaning.

  14. Pavel said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 12:01 am

    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.

    Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm puzzled by this statement… I have several Mandarin dictionaries whose head-字 are ordered, first, by their Hanyu Pinyin romanizations (thereby essentially following English alphabetical order). For these dictionaries, the quickest way of looking up a 字 is in fact to know its pronunciation and to go to the relevant place in the dictionary. None of these dictionaries is the ABC dictionary by the Univ of HI Press. Therefore, it can't strictly speaking be true that the ABC dictionary is “the only” one with this property.

  15. Martin Ellison said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    John Thayer Jensen: There's Heisig and Richardson's books if you want an introductory course in Chinese characters.

  16. kkopp said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 3:22 am

    For Pavel, you might need to actually see the ABC dictionary to understand that it is not in any sense a CHARACTER dictionary. In the ABC dictionary I do not need to know how any of the characters in the word are written; I only need to know the pronunciation of the whole word.

    In the dictionary you describe once I have found the head character by pronunciation, let's say (though I could find it by radical or pure stroke count as well) I have to use whatever system the dictionary in question uses to get to the NEXT part of the word. In some dictionaries (from Taiwan, for instance) the compounds will be listed in the order of the zhuyinfuhao rendering of the pronunciation of the second and subsequent syllables.

    I can use the ABC dictionary just as a I would a dictionary for any ALPHABETICALLY WRITTEN language, which is, I believe, completely unique in Chinese dictionaries.

    However, when I showed both the ABC dictionary and a traditionally organized character dictionary to the excellent student I mentioned in my previous post, she was "amused", but not because of the perfection of the one and the quaintness of the other, but because NEITHER was going to be of any use to her as long as she had access to her online resources, none of which depended on the niceties we are discussing. If I can mouse over text and have a pop-up tell me both meaning and pronunciation of a character or compound, then both dictionaries have begun to move towards obsolescence.

  17. Max Pinton said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    I had the same initial thought as Pavel but I think the nuance here is that even if the head characters are sorted alphabetically and the compounds are sorted alphabetically, they're still grouped by head character.

    So that means that, for instance, mànyì is sorted before mànmà because 漫 màn is before 謾 màn.

  18. Brendan said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 1:20 am

    Online resources like Adso and Perakun and all of those are very handy for casual reading of contemporary texts — which, much of the time, is all people really need. For more serious students or more serious texts, though, it helps to have a real reference work on hand, whether it's the ABC (on which many computer-based tools, including the invaluable Wenlin and Pleco, are based) or the OCD or the 辞海.

    It does seem to be a partly generational thing. I recently began teaching a class in literary translation, and was really surprised to see that most of the students had apparently never learnt to use a print Chinese dictionary. It may not be as utterly necessary a skill at the low levels as it used to be, but I haven't yet seen any online resource that can match the depth available in print works. (Breadth, on the other hand, is an area where crowdsourced dictionaries like Adso and CEDICT tend to do better, at least when it comes to neologisms and slang.)

  19. David Carpenter said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    It is not just a question of whether to use an online dictionary or a print dictionary. I use the ABC dictionary daily, but I've never used the print version. I use it either within Wenlin or within Pleco. Based on the interview with the English editor (the link to which was included in Victor Mair's original post) the OCD will definitely be available in an electronic format. It is just a question of when and where. I would be very happy to find it in either Wenlin or Pleco. I hope it is NOT exclusively available via an Oxford website. I doubt that the interface would be nearly as good as Pleco, or even Wenlin if Wenlin 4.0 ever appears.

    I am very tempted to buy the print edition of the OCD, but unless the electronic version is a long time in development I'm not sure if I would actually make very much use of it. As Victor Mair pointed out, one certainly is not going to carry this one around in one's backback. It is SO much better to have a half dozen or so good dictionaries available on a small, light handheld device such as my iPod Touch. Of course one can still miss the joy of paging through a well-designed book, but for convenience in actually looking up words there's no contest.

  20. Michael Rand Hoare said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 5:19 am

    I am baffled that both formal reviewers and above commentators seem to have missed the FATAL FLAW Iin the OCD. This is the absence of any phonetic informationiin the Eng-Chi section, which denies the learner any immedidate access to pronunciation and tone. Of course the user can go on a goose-chase through the Chi-Eng radical index to come up with this informmation and many advanced users will not need to mucht of the time __ but this will be a bane in the lives of moderate-level learners. (So why bother to put IPA information for the Chinese user then? One may ask.) The reason is all too clear. The result is a sell-out to the marketing suits who are after the Chinese market and don't seem to give a damn for the minority of Anglophone users. The way the problem is elided in all the self-congratulatory blurbs issued by the editors will not fool anybody. And what were the impressive bunch of 'expert' advisors doing when this was pushed through. I write, I'm almost ashamed to say, as a contributor to OUP lexicography under other headings.

  21. John Hill said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

    There is no doubt that the ABC is by far the easier dictionary for English-speaking people to use for all the reasons set out above. Not only is the Chinese to English section of the OCD badly handicapped by the lack of pinyin, it indeed lacks ANY system to make checking the Chinese characters easier. Adding pinyin and the time-honoured radicals plus stroke numbers at each entry would make it a far more useful work.

    The English to Chinese section seems to me to be a misguided, and generally unsuccessful, attempt to outdo the material covered in the ABC.

    Even native Mandarin-speakers "of a certain age" seem pleased to be reminded of the pronunciation of some less-common characters by referring to the pinyin.

    Additionally, Oxford could, however, with very little expense, use this dicitionary as the basis for a truly useful, and manageable, one – a dictionary far more likely to be bought and used by students. First, it should be in two volumes. This would leave plenty of room for pinyin and (dare we hope?), a few more characters, particularly ones needed to read the Classics. And those of us with weakening limbs and backs may continue to be able to pick the dictionary up and carry it to our desks or bedside tables for a few more years.

    Having it in two volumes would also allow it to be expanded somewhat, in spite of adding the pinyin, without becoming too unwieldy. Even another 500 head characters would greatly increase the value of the work for serious students.

    Finally, one can only hope (or should we all start lobbying?) that somehow the resources can be raised to start work on producing a seriously large and comprehensive Chinese to English dictionary so that one doesn't have to acquire sufficient additional language skills to access the excellent multi-volume Chinese to Russian, Chinese to Japanese and Chinese to French reference works already available. If money is short, perhaps we could have one of these works translated into English, and/or the online files for the OCD could be used as a base for such expansion?

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