Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.29

James Morwood, The Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. $13.95. ISBN 0-19-864227-X.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Wills, University of Wisconsin (

"Over 20,000 new entries!! The most complete ever!" -- so shout the marketeers of dictionaries as they vie with hawkers of harlequins for ways to make ageless products seem 'new and improved'. The predicament is surely worse for those peddling dictionaries of classical Latin (hardly a growing wordbase) and worst of all for pocket Latin dictionaries which lack even the aim of comprehensiveness. Undeterred by these difficulties, the jacket of the The Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary tells us that it "is the most comprehensive Latin and English dictionary of its size."

By chance, a student of mine recently asked my opinion on small, Latin dictionaries: he had just bought the book reviewed here. Eager to know what a likely user might think, I threw the ball back into his court and gave him a chance to compare Morwood's Oxford entry with Simpson's (Cassell's), Traupman's (New College), Costa's (Langenscheidt) and -- horribile dictu -- Kidd's Collins Gem. I borrowed these, of course, from various graduate students. We started in the English-Latin section with 'sculptor'. Cassell's and Lang. gave sculptor, Gem fictor, sculptor, New College sculptor, scalptor, and Oxford sculptor, scalptor, artifex, and caelator. At first glance, this would seem to confirm the blurb's claim for its range. But curiously sculptor and scalptor do not appear in POLD's Latin section, and soon one begins to get the flavor of the work: it is happily asymmetrical and edited by a teacher rather than a listmaker. A student may want to know the Latin expressions for this important concept, but unless he is reading Velleius or Pliny, he will never see the Latin words in a text.

A pocket dictionary cannot be all things to all people. Trade-offs must be made, and in POLD's case, this has meant privileging the English-Latin section. Alone of the dictionaries in this category, it has more pages for English-Latin than vice versa. In this way, it reflects the legacy of S. C. Woodhouse's Latin Dictionary of 1913 (still in print from Routledge), of which the present book is officially a new edition.1 Woodhouse's spirit is still visible, although, as the preface explains, "the pruning knife, if not the axe, has had to be much at work on his inventive and lively luxuriance." In cutting back "suspect accretions", the editor's blade has been sharpened by "the important philological advances" of the Oxford Latin Dictionary.

Although substantial, POLD does not try to surpass the competition in sheer quantity of lemmata. Within the E-L section, it offers sequential entries on: sink, sinner, sinuous, sip, siphon, sir, Siren, sister, sisterhood, sister-in-law, and sisterly. Cassell's had only six of these eleven, the New College edition lacked 'sisterhood' but recorded 'sinless' and 'sink' as a noun (sentina), and the Collins Gem had all the Oxford's words with 'sinless' and 'sirocco' thrown in for good measure. But how often, you may ask, does the thoughtful sophomore, at a loss for the Latin equivalent of sirocco, turn in a panic to her pocket dictionary? In this regard, Morwood is also right to have dropped 'sire' as an English entry in his effort to cleanse the English section of Victorian use and be sensible rather than comprehensive. But he might have gone further and excised 'sinuous', for anyone who knows the word in English probably does not need help to locate sinuosus. Also questionable is the frequency of the first definition given under 'sir': n. (knight) eques. In American speech at least, 'sir' is only used as a title of respect (which POLD translates well as bone vir! vir clarissime!).

I assign more Latin composition than anyone I know, but I have not yet had the student who is trying to express 'in a trice' (momento temporis), 'taper' (cereus), or even a basic noun like 'siphon' (sipho), unless she were paraphrasing a text which already has the word in it. This is a pocket dictionary after all, and fewer entries with more idiomatic details would be more helpful. The E-L section gives semantic help in parenthesis, e.g. under 'tail' we find '(of a comet) crinis'; under 'muddy' is '(troubled) turbidus', under 'talk' is the specification '(idle ~) fabulae', and appropriate words are tagged 'with inf.' or 'with dat.' But nothing is indicated of social register or level of diction, e.g. under 'sword' appears ' ensis, gladius, m.; ferrum, nt.' without any indication that the first entry ensis is almost entirely restricted to poetry and would look very odd if used in a simple school exercise about Caesar and the Helvetians.

The larger and more troubling questions are: how much use do these E-L sections get and by whom? Over half of this book is devoted to assisting those readers seeking the Latin words for 'figured, filament, filch, file', etc. Anyone seriously composing in Latin needs a better resource than a pocket dictionary and yet these words are unlikely to appear in classroom activities or the work of casual motto makers. Whatever problems face the editor in devising a Latin canon are multiplied when picturing the needs of the diminished E-L audience, whether in the academy or the infamous, general readership. Despite my criticisms, I do not envy Morwood the task of editing this part of the dictionary and think his effort one of the best.

Rather than fullness, POLD actually distinguishes itself from the competition by its reduction in the Latin-English section, partly by the sequestration of proper names and places to two appendices, but mainly by large cuts in the number of lemmatized words. The beginning of the letter G provides a basis for comparison. With Cassell's as our guide, we meet gaesum, galbaneus, galbanum, galbinus, galea, galeo, galericulum, galeritus, galerum (-us), galla, galliambus, gallica, gallina, gallinaceus, gallinarius, and gallus. By contrast POLD is much more selective, stopping only for gaesum, galea, galerum (-us), gallina, and gallus. It is safe to say that most of the forsaken words will not be missed in a pocket dictionary.

In principle, this thriftiness is to be applauded in a pocket dictionary with a clear mission, but the restriction of the canon is painfully severe. The hefty OLD stopped in the second century (too soon for many of us), but the svelter POLD has tightened its belt yet further, centering on the period "from 100 BC to the death of Livy". Obviously that means comic compounds and all the small fish in Pliny are excused, but even the Augustan wordstock is not fully included. In fact, no single author's lexicon is canonized. In our sample above, even Virgilian attestation is not enough to save galbaneus and galla. At first this may seem a slight on the Georgics, since the exotic gryps of the Eclogues later has a lemma, but duresco (Ecl. 8.80, Georg. 1.72, as well as Cicero and Ovid) also disappears and many other words of limited but steady occurrence. Prose vocabulary has been particularly vulnerable, e.g. we are missing the fairly ordinary Ciceronian mansio, although the less common imperial mansito holds on (presumably due to its appearance in Tac. Ann. 14). The current popularity of Catullus, and the shedding of various taboos, here authorizes futuo, mentula, and cunnus -- words not found in most pocket dictionaries. But the omission of mango (despite the presence of venalicius) suggests no special attention to social history. Nor is any single morphological principle at work: inanio is in and inanitas out, but inceptum is in and incepto out; scalprum is in although scalpo is out. POLD omits loculus (Ovid and Horace) but includes lucellum, omits matertera but includes the more predictable matercula. Amazingly, the rare scurror usurps the rightful place of the more basic and more common scurra.

Special features of POLD include a fifteen-page morphological summary (taken from the author's Oxford Latin Course) and attractive maps of Greece and the Aegean, Italy, and Roman Britain. In accordance with its general style, the book contains fewer mythological, historical, and geographical names than some other dictionaries, but the selection is certainly adequate. Adverbs are separately lemmatized, so sixteen entries intercede between male and malus, but anyone looking up male probably prefers direct service. Oxford is still in England, as certain anglicisms like 'knock up' and 'prawn' confirm. Likewise, the E-L section has an entry for 'garret' (cenaculum) but none for 'attic'. The Latin section systematically uses macrons, and their legibility is assisted by the large clear print (rather than the usual microprint, reprinted from a reprint).

In sum, the jacket's claim to completeness is misleading and probably misdirected. As a believer that less can be more, I appreciate a dictionary which has been edited rather than compiled. My student consumer, however, told me the next day that he had returned the POLD and bought a competitor instead. His considerations were size and weight in a backpack, as well as price. When this dictionary appears in paperback, those problems at least will be solved.


  • [1] Although the press lists both Woodhouse and Morwood as authors, the title page now only records the latter.