Book review: The Disappearing Dictionary, David Crystal

“The Disappearing Dictionary. A Treasury of Lost English Dialect Words”
David Crystal
Macmillan, 21 May 2015
Hardback, 13.7 x 20.5 cm (5.4 x 8.1 in), 225+23 pp., £12.99, US$17.59 (due 21 May)
ISBN 978 1 4472 8280 8
Available for Kindle (£7.12 or $11.10, from 21 May 2015), and in the iTunes Store (£7.49, from 21 May 2015).
Website, although on publication it should have its own companion site here.

Note that at present Amazon and others claim this book to have 320 pages: in fact my copy has 225 pages in the main body, plus 23 in the prefatory material, totalling 248.

You don’t have to travel far or speak too widely in the UK before it is apparent that even British English is a rich and broad family of dialects. Not only do accents vary widely with location, but both lexicon and grammar do too.

The study of (British) English dialects has been a strange pursuit. Like anything to do with ‘folk’ it has attracted the quiet, painstaking, and woefully underappreciated labour of people like Joseph Wright – not the painter of Derby, but the author of the largest and richest gathering of information about English dialects.

Professor David Crystal, a prolific and eminently readable authority on the English language, has here taken around 900 words from Wright’s monumental volumes, updated and summarised them in a pocket-book with about 500 entries, from abbey-lubber to zwodder.

For example, Wright’s original entry for the northern English word madancholy reads:
MADANCHOLY, adj. Yks. Lan. Also written mad-an-colly e.Lan. [madənkoli.] 1. A corruption of the word ‘melancholy.’ e.Lan. 2. Very vexed, sulky.
w.Yks. Shoo’d be as madancholy as owght if tha wor to tell her shoo’d a wart ov her nooase, Leeds Merc. Suppl. (Feb. 2, 1895).”

This Crystal turns into:
madancholy (adjective)
Lancashire, Yorkshire
Very vexed, sulky. From Yorkshire: ‘Shoo’d be as madancholy as owght [anything] if tha wor to tell her shoo’d a wart ov her nooase [nose].’ It’s an ingenious adaptation of melancholy.”

He provides valuable prefatory material in the form of a couple of pages about dialects, a four page appreciation of Joseph Wright, three pages about his dictionary, three pages about the selection in this book, and a couple of maps showing the old counties of England, Scotland, and Wales in 1900, the time that the dictionary was published. The latter maps suffer a little in reduction for print, and those with less than good near vision may find them hard to decipher.

An invaluable addition is a geographical index, which allows you to look up words recorded by Wright as occurring in each of the counties covered. Finally Crystal seeks information on whether any of these words live on today, through the companion website, and provides four pages on which to record such information.

The one tool that would have been helpful in the print edition is a reverse index, allowing you to discover that a stampede was known in Westmorland as a skurreboloo, for instance. Perhaps the companion website will support that, as the electronic versions of the book should.

I would also like to nominate an extra, and cherished favourite of mine, for the website: malleshag, which Wright found in the south of England, notably the Isle of Wight. It means a caterpillar, most specifically of the Cabbage White butterfly, and still finds use in describing exuberant, bushy eyebrows “loik girt malleshags” [like great caterpillars].


Crystal’s latest book is wonderful, and compelling for anyone with the slightest interest in the English language. He has selected a fascinating cross-section, covering much of the UK, each word a gem in itself. This is a book to dip into only if you have good self-control: one word will lead to another, until you have visited each of the 500 or so.

My only disappointment, which may of course be rectified when its companion website is available, is that it fails to mention that the University of Innsbruck has been working on a fully electronic version of Wright’s dictionary for a decade or so, and that scanned copies of the entire dictionary are freely available (quite legitimately too, as they are long out of copyright) at

I hope this omission was not in fear that prospective purchasers would put this book back and just download the PDFs. Even with those loaded on your iPad, you must buy this book: it is what your pocket, mind, and English need. You will soon be hooked on what is a true treasury.

Further Reading

Markus M (2007) Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary computerised: towards a new source of information. Towards Multimedia in Corpus Studies.
University of Innsbruck, beta version of the English Dialect Dictionary online. Requires user ID and password at present. electronic copies of Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary.