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Education: The Last Word

3 minute read

An authority on Romance languages, Provost Edwin Williams of the University of Pennsylvania is in a good position to know that “language changes so rapidly, there’s no end to keeping up with it.” English and Spanish, for instance, are in a constant race: with a score of different nations adding to one, and the U.S. and British Commonwealth adding to the other, it is no wonder that dictionaries in the bilingual field fall way behind. Last week, with the publication of his own Spanish-English dictionary (Holt; $7.50-$8.50), Williams brought things up to date.

Ever since he joined the Penn faculty, Williams has been collecting material for a dictionary. In 1944 he finally settled down to work in earnest. He pored over every English and Spanish dictionary available; he read novels, newspapers and magazines, wrote to businessmen, lawyers, laborers and scholars for the latest words and expressions. When he had gone through the alphabet once, he started from A to Z all over again. The result: the most comprehensive dictionary of its kind yet.

Weed or Wayward Man. Williams has included the major common variants used in different Latin American countries, often had to trace English and Spanish words back to their Latin origins to make sure they are exact equivalents. Instead of translating hierba merely as grass, he lists dozens of botanical variations as well as a few related colloquialisms. Mala hierba can mean weed or it can mean a wayward young man. Hierba amargosa means ragweed, hierba amarilla means an oxeye daisy, and so on down to hierba velluda meaning bulbous buttercup.

From war, science and industry he found hundreds of new words to define. There was guided missile (proyectil dirigido), G-man (agente secreto federal), high-fidelity (alta fidelidad), and 3-D (pelicula cinematográfica tridimensional). He had to translate babbittry (concepto de la moral y las costumbres de la clase media), flying saucer (platillo volador o volante), Hoosier (natural o habitante del estado de Indiana), and water wagon (sin tomar bebidas alcohólicas). Even some old words caused trouble. In no bilingual dictionary, for instance, could Williams find a definition of solitary confinement; he came across it by accident in a magazine. Its Spanish equivalent: celda de castigo.

Hit the Nail. All in all, Williams has added thousands of entries that have never before appeared in a Spanish-English dictionary. More important he feels that by working alone he has been able to eliminate many of the inconsistencies of team-written dictionaries. If “hit the nail on the head” appears in one half of his book he makes sure that dar en el clavo appears in the other. Nor does he make the mistake of treating greed and greediness under one entry, while placing thrift and thriftiness in two.

“A lexicographer,” says he, “needs to have a systematic method. He must be more than a hack. He must be a judge of what is current and accepted.” And he must be a scholar.

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