Comparing Headword Coverage
The range of headwords you find in EnglishWelsh dictionaries varies surprisingly from title to title. Some, especially the older ones, such as the Geiriadur Newydd/Bach and Collins Spurrell, have a huge number of headwords for their physical size. This is because they have very little but headwords, and there is rarely anything inside the entry. Thus they contain some surprisingly obscure words, although they lack some very important vocabulary. More modern titles, such as WLD and PMWD, have proportionally fewer headwords, since they give a lot more information within the entry (phrases, grammatical information etc) but the headwords they have will tend to be more relevant to the modern world.
Lets look at the nine main EnglishWelsh dictionaries bought by learners. In approximate order of text size (headword count) rather than cost or physical size, they are:
Bear in mind that these figures do not tell the whole story, for various reasons. Some publishers do not tell you the size of the text; different publishers have different ways of counting, for example entries, headwords, references, headwords and translations, words and phrases etc; and a lot depends on how the dictionary is organised. By references is meant anything translated from the source language, i.e. headwords and phrases of all kinds; entries means the same as headwords, so if the same item is given in one dictionary as a headword in its own right, and in a second as a sub-entered phrase, it will contribute to a larger headword count (though not a larger reference count) in the first dictionary.
Also, this table takes no account of different senses (meanings) of words, and ignores parts of speech (whether a verb, a noun, an adjective or whatever). For example, if a dictionary included the verb to bowl (not very important) it would still get a tick even if it didnt include the important noun bowl (the thing you eat out of); or it might have the word bottom in the sense of the bottom of the sea or the bottom of the ladder, but not a persons bottom.
There are a total of 78 words in the table above, words given in at least one of the dictionaries. Out of this possible 78 words, the nine dictionaries score as follows:
But we must not get the idea that the more words a dictionary has the better. What matters is whether it has a sensible selection of words. What are the important words for a learners dictionary? Everyone will have their own ideas, but Id suggest the following: border, bored, boring, born, borrow, boss, both, bother, bottle, bottom, bowl, bowling, box, boxing, boy, boyfriend.
How do these nine dictionaries compare? Only 9 out of of 78 words are in all of them: border, borrow, bother, bottle, bottom, boundary, bowl, box, boy. A surprisingly small consensus, it seems to me, and an indication of how arbitrary and casual the process of compiling English Welsh dictionaries generally been. There are certainly some crazinesses: the technical term boulder clay in a little pocket dictionary for example. Acen comes out particularly badly: in an already tiny wordlist, it has room for botany but misses something as fundamental as both. Only three of the nine have boyfriend and they werent all written in the 1950s! Everyday objects like bottle-opener and bow tie and activities like boxing and bowling are under-represented as usual. Learners need language like this to talk about their lives and interests. Four of the dictionaries (including the biggest) lack the important word bored, and boring is missing from all the Christopher Davies titles, even though they all have the less useful boredom, as well as bout and botanical. Its interesting to read down the columns to get a feel for what sort of thing is in each title. Compare, for example, PMWD with Geiriadur Newydd or Collins Spurrell, which are in fact larger in terms of headwords.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the biggest of these texts, Geiriadur Mawr, is actually not very big in real terms. The big Welsh Academy dictionary, Geiriadur yr Academi, adds another 141 words. This includes both useful everyday items like boozer, boozy, bop, borderline, borrowing, Bosnia, Bosnian and bossy and obscure stuff like borborygmus, borogluconate, Boswellian, bovinity, bowyangs and boxcalf. In terms of headword count alone, GYA is three times the size of Geiriadur Mawr. In fact, it is even bigger than that, in terms of the text as a whole, because the entries themselves are much more extensive than those of Geiriadur Mawr.
But actually, compared to most of the dictionaries in this comparison, Geiriadur Mawr seems larger than its headword list would imply, because its entries contain definitions in Welsh as well as translations into English. Compare that with books like the Cyfoes or Collins Spurrell, whose wordlist-style format is so compact that they can pack in a huge number of headwords. But the point of this page is to show that, in learners dictionaries, size isnt everything!
A Dictionary of words only can answer no important end; for one may be acquainted with all the words in a Language, and yet be an entire stranger to its genius. John Walters, An EnglishWelsh Dictionary, 1794.
© 19992001 Harry Campbell
Page added: December 2001