An entire field in a duffel coat pocket

The New Penguin Dictionary of Civil Engineering. First edition
December 2, 2005

Compiling a specialist dictionary relating to a particular subject or discipline demands a huge effort by a lexicographer, who should have already forged strong links with a publisher familiar with this type of publication. When these conditions are met, such projects are usually successful and the resulting volume provides a valuable aide-mémoire for members of the discipline and, more important, a window through which the uninitiated can glimpse the inner workings of an important profession.

There are three components to this dictionary: the discipline, the lexicographer and the publisher. The discipline is a huge one: civil engineering is a large and ever-changing body of knowledge and activity that overlaps with many other disciplines. To cover the field demands a lexicographer of great knowledge and experience, and David Blockley fits the bill. He is a past president of the Institute of Structural Engineers and professor of civil engineering at Bristol University. He readily acknowledges his debt to Penguin as the publisher, and has benefited from consulting its existing dictionaries of architecture, building, economics, biology, mathematics, philosophy and physics.

The outcome of all this effort is an excellent dictionary. It is well written, reasonably priced and of a size that is pleasant to hold in the hand or slip into the pocket of one's duffel coat ( de rigueur attire for civil engineers). The layout is fine, the 8,000-odd entries cover the subject comprehensively, and the cross-referencing is extremely helpful.

About 200 of the entries are highlighted as "significant" and all these are brought together in the final page of the book and placed in ten categories that then constitute the ten bones of a skeleton around which exists the civil engineering profession. The ten classifications are: environmental sustainability; systems thinking; quality; uncertainty; philosophy of engineering; culture; need; business case; judgment; and learning organisation. This is as good a summary of the profession as you are likely to find, as indeed is the volume itself.

It can be used as a book of reference and it is also a pleasure to browse and pick up nuggets of information here and there. It would be of particular value to students of civil engineering and related disciplines.

I thoroughly recommend it.

Jack Harris spent 35 years working in Britain's civil nuclear power industry and is a fellow of the Royal Society.

The New Penguin Dictionary of Civil Engineering. First edition

Author - David Blockley
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 560
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 14 051526 7

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