Eisteddfod: Defining The Word

Eisteddfod: “a congress of Welsh bards and minstrels” says the American College Dictionary (Random House 1963). Very poetic!

Let’s see what some modern English dictionaries make of this word, one of the very few Welsh words to have entered the English language, if by that we mean appearing in dictionaries of English.

The Collins English Dictionary is extremely specific:

Collins English Dictionary
© 1998 HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
This is a good example of a classic lexicographical error: defining a word according to what it often refers to, rather than what it actually means. Collins’ over-specific definition rules out one of the most famous eisteddfodau: when Hedd Wyn won his posthumous Chair in 1917 it was in England, at Birkenhead. The New Oxford Dictionary of English doesn’t insist that an eisteddfod has to take place every year:
New Oxford Dictionary of English
© 1998 Oxford University Press
. . .but still feels that it’s not an eisteddfod if it’s not in Wales. Which, as they’ll tell you from Australia to South Africa to Patagonia to the Isle of Jersey, is nonsense!

The Longman Dictionary of the English Language is nearer the mark:

Longman Dictionary of the English Language
© Merriam Webster Inc 1984/Longman Group UK Ltd 1991
Not bad, though as we’ve seen the word has been taken up outside Welsh or Welsh-speaking circles. It certainly doesn’t have to be in Welsh to be an eisteddfod: even the National itself has only only had a Welsh-only rule since 1952.

Even the phonetic transcription is nearly right (wrong secondary stress in the plural), which is more than you can say for any of the others. (What a coincidence, Collins make the same mistake.) I have yet to come across the English dictionary that transcribes, or indeed defines, this word quite correctly.

The worst definition by some way must be that of the Encarta dictionary, which is so full of errors and misconceptions that I won’t waste time quoting it here. Suffice it to say that it lives up to the standards set by Microsoft’s other products.

But for sheer entertainment value let us turn to Collins Cobuild English Dictionary:

Collins Cobuild English Dictionary
© 1995 HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
The definition seems passable, but when we look at the phonetic transcription we find to our surprise that there is a variant US pronunciation! Would you believe it, the Americans pronounce the word with a v sound as in Welsh, rather than the f which is, apparently, heard in British English. So which piece of rigorous and authoritative phonetic research came up with that one then??


Collins Cobuild English Dictionary (2nd ed. 1995). London: HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0-00-370941-8.

New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998). Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-861263-X.

Longman Dictionary of the English Language (1984). Harlow, Essex: Longman, ISBN 0-582-07038-4.

Collins English Dictionary (4th ed. 1998). London: HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0-00-470453-3.

back to Eisteddfod page

© 2000–2001 Harry Campbell
Last updated: August 2001