Beating an unconventional path

ABC Chinese-English Dictionary
September 12, 1997

Having been a language teacher all my life, I have always relied heavily on dictionaries. These are my most indispensable tools, or rather, my most intimate and reliable friends and instructors, wherever I go and whatever I teach. I am now a teacher of Chinese at a British university, so you may well imagine how pleased I was when I had the first opportunity of consulting the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary edited by John DeFrancis (hereafter referred to as ABC). Since I have been asked to review it, I have put it through the most stringent test by using it in all conceivable ways.

The first thing I found was that I could look up any word or expression much more quickly than I could with any other Chinese-English dictionary I have used to date. Other dictionaries, since they are all organised in the form of a head-character (whether it is a word or a non-word) followed by related or seemingly related items, one has to find the right character first and on many occasions search among its homophonic counterparts before one can find the word or expression itself. As ABC is purely alphabetic, one goes straight to the word one wants. This not only saves the user plenty of time but also avoids the sometimes bizarre head-character format whereby a non-word like ru has to be first annotated as "Confucianism" before it is shown as forming part of a word like rugen "(zoo) dugong (ie mermaid)".

The other advantage ABC has is its clear and concise arrangement, averaging 85 entries per page in a portable size volume. This studied compactness comes from the space saved from unnecessarily wordy definitions, given repetitively to head-characters in particular and from superfluous examples. In ABC, for instance, the user on page 336 locates very quickly a term like "kaolao reward with food and drink", whereas in A Chinese-English Dictionary (revised edition) published by Foreign Language and Research Press in Beijing (hereafter CED), on page 551 one first locates the following: "kao reward with food and drink: kao shi reward an army with food and drink" and then goes on to: "kaolao reward with food and drink: kaolao Jiefangjun reward the PLA soldiers with food and drink: chi kaolao enjoy rewarded food and drink".

What redundancy and waste of space. That is perhaps why, compared with other dictionaries of similar capacity, ABC gives users much more prompt and comfortable access to the item they need, relieving them of the trouble of having to handle an unwieldy volume and finger through many more pages only to find a lot of unnecessary repetitions. This compact layout also offers the editor more room to build up a larger corpus by selectively including items which would normally elude dictionaries of a similar size. It is this discretion over what items to include and to exclude that John DeFrancis uses so well, resulting in a most happy combination of judgement and scholarship which we should all be thankful for.

ABC can therefore not only embrace a substantial number of geographical names, particularly with reference to China, and a whole host of names of Chinese historical figures and well-known personages, but also include the most up-to-date terms of usages from diverse fields of study. For example: "bailing jieceng N. white collar class; yapishi N. . LESS THAN LESS THAN loan.

/ yuppie; zifuchuan(r) N. . LESS THAN LESS THAN lg.

/ string; ruanpan N. . LESS THAN LESS THAN comp.

/ floppy disk, diskette; rucihui V. . LESS THAN LESS THAN lg.

/ lexicalise", and many more. And when I found an entry like "lekai hua VO. be very happy" I felt equally elated.

However, there are some problems with the ABC, which I hope may be solved when the dictionary is revised.

The wisdom, or indeed the capriciousness, of a dictionary is often reflected in the intuitive decision of its editor. For example, without rhyme or reason, CED includes under its head-character entry "li (1) plum; (2) (Li) a surname" the only proper name of a legendary figure in Water Margin called Li Kui. ABC is certainly less whimsical and more practical. It excludes this proper name and has instead assembled around 13 much more important and useful proper names, including Li Bai/Bo, Li Dazhao, Li Longji, Li Zongren, etc. Nevertheless, ABC, basing itself mainly on Hanyu Pinyin Cihui (1989 revised edition) published by Yuwen Chubanshe (hereafter CH), has also inherited some of its errors. For example, there is no reason whatsoever for CH to include only Zhubajie, the Pig, a legendary character in Journey to the West, but not even Sun Wukong, the much more popular Monkey King in the same novel, an illogicality which ABC has, perhaps unwittingly, followed. This also occurs with titles of Ming and Qing novels like Hongloumeng "N. Dream of the Red Chamber". Why should this title alone be featured to the exclusion of all the other equally popular novels from more or less the same period of time?

Inconsistency also slips into certain definitions. ABC made a very good decision to distinguish between singular and plural notions in, for example: "chuan N. boat; ship" and "chuanzhi N. (1) shipping (2) vessels; ma N. (1) horse (2) horse chess piece (3) Surname" and "mapi N. horses". But why not in: "che N. (1) vehicle (2) wheeled machine/instrument (3) Surname V.(1) lathe; turn (2) lift water with water-wheel" and "cheliang N. vehicle; car; shu N. (1) book 92) style of calligraphy; script (3) (4) document V. write" and "shuben N. book".

In the English definitions (or equivalents) given for the Chinese items, the editor, hoping, no doubt, to save space, consistently omits articles. This practice might be all right with native speakers of English, but how about non-native speakers like me? I would have no way to find out when I should myself supply a definite, indefinite or zero article in the following English idioms: louxian(r) VO. . LESS THAN LESS THAN coll.

/ give game away; chuchou VO. make fool of oneself; bring shame on oneself; qiechang VO. have stage fright (lit/fig.) There are also one or two minor inaccuracies or typos which can be easily corrected, such as "nuhong N. needlework". According to traditional standards, this word should be pronounced as nugong because its second character, gong, does not mean "red". And coincidentally, on the next page, the written character which represents the second syllable of the term: "nulan N. women's basketball team" should have the "bamboo" radical rather than the "grass" radical as it has nothing to do with "blue".

Despite these errors, I shall look upon ABC as one of my most cherished academic possessions and whenever I turn its pages (which I will probably do constantly from now on), I will go on appreciating this milestone contribution of DeFrancis to Chinese studies: a Chinese-English dictionary that beats a path through all conventionalities hitherto adhered to.

Yip Po-Ching is lecturer in Chinese studies, University of Leeds.

ABC Chinese-English Dictionary

Editor - John DeFrancis
ISBN - 0 7007 0511 2
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £25.00
Pages - 897

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