linguistics and lexicography Love English

An old dictionary, and a simple solution to an annoying problem

MBellows’ German Dictionary, Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., first published in 1912ichael Rundell has convincingly put the case for digital dictionaries, and I use them regularly and appreciate the benefits they bring. But I’ve also got shelves full of printed dictionaries – this still strikes me as an odd collocation, though it’s obviously needed! – and I don’t intend to stop using them, any more than I intend to stop listening to my LPs. Sometimes I use them to look up something in particular, other times to just leaf and browse, especially as a procrastination strategy when I should really be writing a report on a lesson I’ve observed, or translating a thrilling text about the excavation and disposal of redundant electric cables, for example.

Occasionally, when I’m looking up a word in a bilingual printed dictionary, I find the right page but I can’t see the word I’m looking for. And the more I look, the more it isn’t there. Then it dawns on me that I’m looking at the wrong language. Now, if both sections of the dictionary – language A to language B and language B to language A – are printed in the same big thick volume, I can quite easily flick to the correct section, but it’s still annoying.

Here’s one dictionary from long before the digital age that offers a simple solution to this annoying problem: Bellows’ German Dictionary (Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., first published in 1912). One of the six “strictly original points” included in the copyright of this work is “the arrangement of both the German-English and the English-German divisions concurrently on the same page.”

The amounts of space taken up by German and English vary from page to page, to enable the two languages to keep up with each other as they progress through the alphabet; page 465, for example, has only 3 headwords in German – Omen, Omnibus and Onkel – but 15 in English, from ominous to only, including long entries for on and one. On the other hand there are 15 pages with only German headwords beginning with sch-.

One of the other interesting features of this dictionary, and one which isn’t mentioned at all in the front matter, is that the German classification of nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter gender is extended to English. As you can see on the page reproduced above (you can click on the image to enlarge it), musician, musketeer, mute and mutineer are masculine (in bold plain block capitals) while the other nouns, like the vast majority of English nouns in the dictionary, are neuter (in Roman capitals). Other masculine nouns include champion, colleague, communist, doctor, mammoth, manager, maniac, teacher and visitor. In a few cases a ‘masculine’ noun has the annotation [& f] to show that it can also be feminine; this applies, for example, to cook, cousin, and spouse. English feminine nouns (in italic capitals – see the examples in the German division) are few and far between; as well as cat, cow, girl, mare, mermaid and mother, they include nurse, milliner and names of naval vessels such as clipper, dinghy, ship and steamer.

Other attractions of this dictionary include vocabulary from “many branches of engineering, including such recent developments of the latter as automobilism and aviation.” All in all, it’s highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a bit of creative time-wasting. I wonder whether “the arrangement of both […] divisions concurrently on the same page” has ever been used in other dictionaries?

Of course, this arrangement doesn’t solve the more serious problem of taking one volume of a two-volume bilingual dictionary off the shelf, lugging it across to the other side of the room, settling down in a comfy armchair and opening it, and finding that it’s B to A, and you actually wanted A to B.

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Jonathan Marks


  • Nice to see Bellows getting a well-deserved plug. I have a Bellows French Dictionary, first published in 1910, though my copy is a later printing of the third edition. It’s a source of almost limitless fascination as a document of social history. Like your German one, it marks words such as midwife, nurse and ship as feminine in English, while surgeon, connoisseur and champion are masculine, along with professor, officer, minister and director, despite the fact that director is translated as directeur -trice. Cook gets the [&f] note, but not cousin, which is given as cousin -e, while spouse is masculine, translated as époux, and then appears in italic and is translated as épouse. Time-servers are masculine, of course, as are tipplers, drunkards and wasters – though he may well be right about those. I’m sure a corpus search would largely support him.

    English words beginning with ‘th’ are preceded by either faib or fort, depending on whether the pronunciation is /ð/ or /θ/. The introductory matter admits that “The th is proverbially difficult… yet with the simple assistance given under the heading TH and the corresponding marks of ‘fort‘ or ‘faible‘ opposite each word, any Frenchman can sound either of these combinations very nearly as it ought to be sounded.” The simple assistance he mentions is the instruction to “…pronounce the French words ‘Sel’ and ‘Zèle’ while putting the tip of your tongue between your teeth”. Oh that it were that easy!

  • Thanks, Stephen. That’s interesting. In the German dictionary, /ð/ is transcribed as dh and /θ/ as th, hence there [dhehr] and theme [thihm], for example. There’s a similar tip about how to produce these sounds: say the German words Haus and Häuser with the tip of your tongue between your teeth. It doesn’t tell you that should restrict this manoeuvre to the articulation of the /s/ and /z/ respectively, and not try to say the complete words with your tongue between your teeth!

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