Title: Chambers 21st Century Dictionary
Publisher: Chambers Harrap Publishing, Ltd.
Tested: Oct. 14-16, 2003
The classic Chambers 20th Century Dictionary got its name from the fact that it was first published in 1901. It saw many new editions, but the publisher decided that the title may not be chic enough at the end of the 1980s and changed it to Chambers English Dictionary with the 1989 edition. It was then changed to just The Chambers Dictionary in 1993. This is still the title on the most recent 9th edition that was issued in September 2003.
The publisher apparently did not want to wait until 2001 to revive the classic title, substituting 20th with 21st Century, and rushed to market in the mid-1990 the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary (CH21), followed by an updated edition in 2001. This confused and disappointed many dictionary buyers and users, because CH21 is substantially smaller than the less ambitiously titled Chambers Dictionary and lacks some of its signature features, including the sometimes refreshingly sarcastic tone, illustrated by the well-known definition of éclair: "a cake long in shape but short in duration."
In the 21st Century Dictionary, éclair is defined as a "long cake of choux pastry with a cream filling and chocolate or coffee icing." I am afraid that many of those who are not Martha Stewart disciples may not know what choux pastry is. It is a semi-translated term for cabbage pastry from the French pâte choux, as I learned from looking up its definition. It is good that I found it there, but you would hope that a person with average reading skills would not need a dictionary to understand a definition.
The definition of one of the meanings of the intransitive verb to fish — "(usually fish for something) to seek information, compliments, etc. by indirect means" — is a tad stodgy compared to the definition in the Chambers Dictionary: "to catch or try to catch or obtain fish, or anything that may be likened to a fish (such as seals, sponges, compliments, information or husbands)." Then again, the idiomatic examples in CH21 are good.
Dictionary makers and their PR specialists like to brag about the number of entries and definitions in their dictionaries and often play fast and loose with those numbers because their competitors do, making an endless circle of the numbers game. It is noteworthy that the PR blurbs for CH21 do not mention the size of the dictionary in any shape or form. It is possible that the obviously lower number than the widely touted 300,000 definitions in the Chambers English Dictionary would not make CH21 as attractive.
CH21 fared below the other single-volume dictionaries in my benchmark test of more than 150 words and idiomatic expressions — a mix of general, scientific, technical, medical, slang, archaic, regional and borrowed foreign words. Its hit rate was 57%, considerably below, for example, the Collins Concise English Dictionary, which achieved a 66% hit rate.
There is no digital version of The Chambers Dictionary, so I could not compare the hit rate of CH21 with that, but I am sure it would have fared significantly better than CH21 because the spectrum of words has always been its forte, including the less mainstream words. That is one of the reasons that The Chambers Dictionary has been the standard reference for Scrabble and crossword aficionados. CH21 is not. Although, to its credit, it is the preferred dictionary of the British Medical Journal.
CH21 performed the weakest with information technology terms and slang and foreign words, the types of terms that the print version of Chambers Dictionary treats very well. It had no definitions for acronyms and words like DVD, e-commerce, e-zine, netizen, vaporware or vapourware, which are well-defined in most of the other dictionaries in the same league. The same was true for slang terms, like chick flick, go postal and road kill, and for foreign terms, like haole, kahuna, lanai, intifada and zaftig. There were exceptions, the word spiel, when the term had a definition and/or an etymology that made it the best among half a dozen free dictionaries. Other entries, such as détente, honcho and pixel, ranked second best (usually behind Collins).
The above examples show that the coverage of the various senses of the words are also good, although sample sentences to illustrate word use could improve their usefulness. CH21 is well complemented by the Collins Thesaurus, however, I did not test that in detail.
The software does well the simple job of finding headwords and their derivative formats embedded in the entries. For example, jaywalker and jaywalking are in the entry for the verb jaywalk, and searching for any of the three words will find the entry. But searching for traffic lights, which is in the definition of jaywalk, will not find this entry. This is common in the free dictionaries. It is another issue that the definition is less memorable than the one in the 20th Century editions that defines jaywalker as "a careless pedestrian whom motorists are expected to avoid running down."
Color is used well in the entries and the matching terms are highlighted — a big plus in case of long entries. An option to re-run the search in the thesaurus would be convenient, in order to see the synonyms and antonyms of the word — as is done in the free online version of the Merriam-Webster 10th
I would prefer to have online the real successor of the legendary Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, but CH21 is a good additional resource to complement the free dictionaries of Collins and Encarta for definitions of mainstream words.