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Customer Review

on May 18, 2007
The title under review is a very modestly revised, and slightly expanded, fourth edition of the Oxford Russian Dictionary (ORD), the flagship of OUP's Russian dictionary range, which was first published in 1993, reissued with corrections in 1997, and, with a new editor at the helm, republished in a 'Major New Edition' (ORD 3) in March 2000. In addition to a complete typographical overhaul, ORD 3 incorporated new vocabulary and a number of editorial refinements. Unbeknown to most purchasers, however, in one key respect it marked a huge backward step in the title's development: the work's already paltry A-Z content (i.e. the dictionary proper, as opposed to the non-lexicographical 'extras') - of around 470,000 words, phrases and translations (WPT) - was reduced by tens of thousands of items. More than 6,000 headwords alone were stripped from the Russian-English section of the 1997 edition, often with quite breathtaking disregard for their literary or cultural significance. Curiously, although it had fewer pages, larger type and significantly less A-Z content than its predecessor, ORD 3's jacket copy continued to claim to offer the user 470,000 WPT. ORD 4's WPT claim has been upped to 500,000 items, despite the fact that the number of A-Z pages is once again down on the previous edition and OUP's web site states clearly that the new edition includes only "HUNDREDS of new words, in both Russian and English". Clearly, OUP's WPT claims should be viewed with some scepticism.

Since it is one of a suite of unabridged OUP bilingual dictionaries, ORD 4's exceptionally low WPT count has a striking value-for-money aspect. With an RRP of £35, it is significantly more expensive than all but one of the other unabridged bilingual dictionaries, but offers dramatically less content than any of them. Professional Russian linguists and value-seeking advanced students alike will lament how badly its claimed 500,000 WPT compares with, for example, the claimed 910,000 WPT in the just-published fourth edition of the Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary (RRP: £29.99). In case there are doubters, be assured that the lexical resources of Russian are at least equal to those of French or any other European language. Value-for-money considerations aside, the fact that OUP's flagship Russian dictionary is so vastly inferior to its fellow bilingual offerings and, nothwithstanding WPT claims to the contrary, offers the user less A-Z content in 2007 than it did on its launch in 1993 should be a matter of deep concern to all of those with a serious interest in the development of Russian studies.

Although dwarfed by the huge content deficit, another fundamental shortcoming of ORD 4 is the inadequacy of its pronunciation guidance. Whilst a phonetic transcription is generally provided for English headwords, common variant pronunciations of words like 'contribute', 'controversy' and 'research' are frequently lacking and no transcriptions are provided for the thousands of 'nested' (see below) headwords, such as 'twopenny-halfpenny'. Furthermore, no attempt is made to reflect often sharply differing American usage (as in the words 'clerk', 'derby', 'fertile' and 'vase'). As for in-text pronunciation guidance in the Russian-English section, none whatever is provided, despite the increasing inclusion of such assistance in monolingual Russian dictionaries. Not least because it glosses over important points, the two-page Russian pronunciation guide at the front of the work is no substitute for in-text guidance.

Another fundamental shortcoming is the practice in the English-Russian section of 'nesting' compound headwords at the expense of overall alphabetical order. As a result words like 'cocktail', 'peanut', and 'so-so' are found not in their alphabetical place, but under 'cock', 'pea', and 'so' respectively. Efficient consultation is further hampered by the ill-judged downgrading of many multi-word lexical units to the status of example phrases: e.g. while 'ice floe' and 'hand grenade' ARE treated as headwords, 'Ice Age' and 'hand luggage' are not.

The Preface to ORD 4 states that "it has been updated to include the most important new words and meanings that have entered Russian and English in recent years". Just how scientifically this task has been performed may be judged from the following selection of omissions: 'anorak' (as person), 'bubble wrap', 'carbon footprint', 'celeb', 'chemo', 'civil partnership', 'couch potato', 'CPS', 'dis(s)', 'ER', 'fair trade', 'fatwa', 'geek', 'Green' (as in 'the Green candidate'), 'grunge', 'ICU', 'indie', 'intifada', 'Islamist', 'jihadi', 'jilbab', 'laddish', 'liposuction', 'login', 'madrasa(h)', 'makeover', 'malware', 'MPEG', 'MSP', 'NGO', 'pilates', 'rapper', 'silver surfer', 'slapper', 'smoothie' (as fruit drink), 'spliff', 'suicide bomber', 'USB', 'webcam', 'Wi-Fi', and, of course, 9/11. Lack of space prevents me from even getting started on the vast number of recent newcomers to the Russian language unrecorded in the Russian-English section.

Further evidence of the amateurishness of the work's execution is its wholesale disregard for frequency counts and corpora of both English and Russian. For example, of the 10,000 most common Russian words listed in frequency order in Nicholas Brown's Russian Learners' Dictionary (Routledge, 1996), more than a hundred are unlisted in ORD 4. In the 21st century, decisions on which words and senses belong in a dictionary should be based on scientific criteria, rather than an editorial whim.

Amateurishness is also in evidence in ORD 4's handling of American English, which disadvantages the native Russian user in particular. The riches of American vocabulary are woefully underrepresented (the user will, for example, search in vain for 'busboy', 'goofy', 'movie theater', 'pinkie', 'wetback' or 'zilch') and, as pointed out earlier, American pronunciation is ignored altogether.

The 50-odd pages of 'extras' in ORD 4 are largely recycled, warts and all, from the recent 3rd edition of the Pocket Oxford Russian Dictionary and are, in my opinion, inappropriate in a work aimed at advanced students and professional linguists with ready access to superior treatments of the same material in other sources. The Editor would have done better to use this space to address the fundamental shortcomings of the work and to make more than a token effort to reflect the enormous changes in the vocabulary of both languages in the seven years since the previous edition.
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