language

The Dictionary of Difficult Words by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart

dictionary of difficult wordsDo you want to be a sesquipedalian? Or perhaps a dabster at words? Maybe you watch Child Genius and marvel that the children can spell those long complicated words and yet you wonder what they mean and if Richard Osman is pronouncing them correctly? This delightfully packaged colourful book by lexicographer Jane Solomon aims to bring tough words to our attention, so that we can play with words, show off our knowledge, and win at scrabble.

In fact, although labelled as a dictionary ‘of difficult words’, that’s exactly what dictionaries used to be. Dictionaries didn’t begin life with Samuel Johnson, and they didn’t always contain a comprehensive list of all words in alphabetical order. The first dictionaries were word lists containing difficult words, usually adopted from other languages or about technical topics such as falconry for example, and people consulted them for difficult words that they hadn’t heard before.

And they didn’t necessarily have the pronunciation in them either. Luckily for us, Jane Solomon has included pronunciation too, so that the book can be read out loud from parent to child (without parent looking too stupid), or by the child themselves.

There are three types of words within the book. Words that an adult will probably know, and can elucidate for a young child, such as ogre and ombudsman. There are harder words that an adult will probably know but might find hard to define, such as paradigm, and then there are words that are really obscure, such as prestidigitation.

Each letter of the alphabet has about four pages of words and their definitions, although each is spread out with lots of space, and surrounded by wonderful full page illustrations, or just little illustrations next to the word – plethora is illustrated with a woman surrounded by more flying insects than one would want. Replica is accompanied by a full page image of an artist drawing a replica of the Mona Lisa.

The illustrations illuminate every page, and each letter tends to have its own colour palette – J is red and orange, and the style tends towards folksy, sometimes symbolic, but most of them are imbued with a wonderful sense of humour. ‘Jilt’ has a great illustration of a bride storming away, ‘juxtapose’ shows a girl in two types of weather.

The words included range across a spectrum of the parts of a sentence – adjectives and nouns mainly, with some verbs creeping in, and the words range across a huge number of subjects from science to the arts, types of animal to types of people, musical instruments, nature, and history.

This is fantastic for dipping into or reading right through. I’m determined not to show it to my children yet, until I’ve exhausted the x words in scrabble. There are also some wonderful notes at the beginning about the parts of speech, and how to work out what a word means and how to pronounce it, as well as some simple notes at the end about usage, and all written in a bouncy light tone, which feels friendly and yet still authoritative.

Personally, I am ebullient about this book, although haven’t reviewed it extemporaneously. Quite a frabjous book, and after reading it I can be grandiloquent in future, and quite a maven about the English language. For any age, but particularly 8+ years. Don’t be a mugwump – buy your own copy here.