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Kenneth Ellman Reviews Bill Bryson Dictionary for Writers and Editors

Kenneth Ellman Reviews Bill Bryson’s “Dictionary for Writers and Editors”, Email:, Newton, New Jersey 07860, October 9, 2013
I have owned this Bryson Dictionary for some time and probably would have benefitted from more use of it than I made. It is far too convenient when typing on a computer to use the Internet for consultation on meaning, usage or even audio pronunciation.  I suppose that many of us just open another browser or window and look up what we question and then quickly resume our writing on the machine of our choice. Too convenient and perhaps too simple.

So I also keep near me and should use more,  a variety of Dictionary and Encyclopedia for consultation in addition to the inherent spell checker of many word processors. I admit that when a computer or internet connection is not available, I also use a very small electronic dictionary which additionally pronounces the words. There are many such small devices as the Franklin Speaking Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. So what use are paper dictionary books; which also begs the question what use are paper books at all. When I say “begs the question” in addition to the classical meaning of the expression, I also mean literally in that such cries out or begs to be answered! So what does this all mean? In 398 pages Bryson has given us an interesting handbook combining terms of history, current events and basic English usage, that if you take the time to actually read, it is likely you will find it useful, practical and beneficial.  It is a limited English language handbook that with explanations of words, names, and confusion  chosen by Bryson can be of service to you. For a book like this to help a writer it need not take the place of other more demanding references nor be complete in any sense at all. It must just make a contribution to understanding how better to communicate and in that sense it does its job well.

The book is truly idiosyncratic (a word not specifically in the Bryson Dictionary), and so you get an insight into what Bryson thinks needs to be addressed. The book can leave you laughing and I assume that is what the author intended.

I now give examples of his approach.
“Idiosyncrasy” he states is often misspelled with a cy instead of a sy. He then gives no definition at all!  I suppose he assumes you know the meaning. Fine with me but not for everyone. “Ides of March” is defined with the historical fact that it can mean the 15th day of March when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  That is all he says! Any discussion of how or why the term is used today as an expression or allegory is absent.  “Immanent” is joined with “Imminent” as a showing of word confusion with the proper definition of each given and with the word “eminent” thrown in for good measure!  “Bonsai”  and “Banzai” are distinguished and defined.  I admit I would have failed on that one. “Plessy  v. Ferguson” is defined but without giving the legal citation.  “Yakuza” is explained and noted that it should not be capitalized.  “Steve Yzerman” is explained as a Canadian ice hockey player, apparently for those who need to know this. “Vladimir Zworykin”, a Russian-born RCA American scientist who tried but failed to invent a usable television is listed, but his relationship to RCA and as a protagonist to a true American hero,  Philo Farnsworth is not discussed. Strangely I cannot find Farnsworth in the Bryson Dictionary at all even though it is Farnsworth who invented what we today know of as television.  “Homonym” is distinguished from “Homophone”, which again I was not an expert on. He explanation is really quite good and educated me.

The book contains a useful  Appendix and Glossary and I could write a page just on that. I enjoy reading this Byrson Dictionary. It is educational and fun.  I am not sure though how appealing it would be to most people.  Perhaps it did not sell well as I purchased the hardcover edition  at the now  out of business Borders for $5.99 less 25% =$4.72 plus tax.  If you can purchase this book cheaply I strongly recommend it for enjoyment, fun, some learning and an insight into the mind of the author.  I do not regret my $4.72 investment and neither will you.  Kenneth Ellman,, Box 18, Newton, New Jersey 07860