This article is from the alt.usage.english FAQ, by Mark Israel email@example.com with numerous contributions by others.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd ed. (OED2) (Oxford
University Press, 1989, 20 vols.; compact edition, 1991 ISBN
0-19-861258-3; additions series, 2 vols., 1993, ISBN 0-19-861292-3
and 0-19-861299-0), has no rivals as a historical dictionary of the
English language. It is too large for the editors to keep all of
it up to date, and hence should not be relied on for precise
definitions of technical terms, or for consistent usage labels.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster,
1961, ISBN 0-87779-201-1) (W3) is the unabridged dictionary to check
for 20th-century U.S. citations of word use, and for precise
definitions of technical terms too rare to appear in college
dictionaries. People sometimes cite W3 with a later date. These
later dates refer to the addenda section at the front, *not* to the
body of the dictionary, which is unchanged since 1961. W3 was
widely criticized by schoolteachers and others for its lack of usage
labels; e.g., it gives "imply" as one of the meanings of "infer" and
"flout" as one of the meanings of "flaunt", without indicating that
these are disputed usage. Others have defended the lack of usage
labels. An anthology devoted to the controversy is "Dictionaries
and THAT Dictionary: A Case Book of the Aims of Lexicographers and
the Targets of Reviewers", ed. James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt
(Scott Foresman, 1962); a more recent book, "The Story of Webster's
Third : Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and Its Critics" by
Herbert C. Morton (Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN
0-521-46146-4) is heavily biased in favour of W3. Merriam-Webster
is working on a 4th edition, with completion expected around the
Please don't refer to any dictionary simply as "Webster's".
"Books in Print" has 5 columns of book titles beginning with
"Webster's", from many different publishers!
One-volume 8"x10" dictionaries are popularly known as "collegiate
dictionaries", but they should be called "college dictionaries" or
"quarto dictionaries", since "Collegiate" is a trademark of Merriam-
Webster. The college dictionary most frequently cited here is
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Merriam-
Webster, 1994, ISBN 0-87779-712-9) (MWCD10). Merriam-Webster
publishes sub-editions of its Collegiate dictionaries, so look at
the copyright date to see exactly what you have. The most
comprehensive British college dictionary is Collins English
Dictionary (3rd edition, HarperCollins, updated 1994, ISBN
0-00-470678-1). Our British posters seem to refer more often to
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th Edition, Oxford University
Press, 1995, 0-19-861319-9) (COD9) and The Chambers Dictionary
(Chambers, 1994, ISBN 0-550-10256-6). Some of us believe that the
editorial standard of the Concise Oxford has declined since H. W.
Fowler and F. G. Fowler brought out the first few editions; some of
the partisans of COD9 seem to have bought it COD9 simply because it
said "Oxford" on the cover, and not compared it with other
If you're interested in etymology, get The American Heritage
Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin,
1992, ISBN 0-395-44895-6) (AHD3) or Webster's New World College
Dictionary (3rd edition, Macmillan, 1996, ISBN 0-02-860333-8).
These are two of the few dictionaries that trace words back to their
reconstructed Indo-European (Aryan) roots. AHD3 is particularly
useful because it lists the etyma all together in an appendix.
Because the appendix was pared in the third edition, "The American
Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots", by Calvert Watkins
(Houghton Mifflin, 1985), although out of print, is not obsolete.
Although AHD3 looks larger than a college dictionary, its word
count puts it in the college range. If you want an up-to-date
dictionary that is larger than a college dictionary, get the Random
House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, Random House, revised
1993, ISBN 0-679-42917-4) (RHUD2).