Friday, August 6, 2021

A Paper Dictionary?!?


Recently, I was thinking about dictionaries, partly spurred on by the discussion in episode #68 of You Can Learn Chinese. I might possibly be a bit strange in that I’ve always enjoyed flipping through dictionaries, randomly reading about whatever words I happen upon. When I was intensely learning German, my German dictionary was always with me. (I won’t say “when I was learning German” even though I’m “fluent” by many measures. I think I’ll always be learning German. Heck, I’ll always be learning my native language of English, too!) After a year in Germany, my dictionary was falling apart! I bought a newer, larger one for my continuing studies, but it was never quite as loved as that first one, held together by lots of tape.

Selecting a dictionary

While learning Chinese, I had held back on buying a Chinese dictionary. The electronic dictionaries are so much easier for looking up words. Also, I didn’t feel like I was at a level yet where I could successfully look up Chinese words for which I didn’t know the pinyin. I didn’t want to overwhelm myself, at least not more than I already had. However, now that I’ve been studying Chinese for a couple years, I was starting to miss the ability to just flip through a book, or look up a word and see the adjacent words. So at this point (for reference: end of HSK 3, starting to study HSK 4) I decided to take the leap buy a paper dictionary.

I looked through the various options, which are surprisingly small in number. My requirements were I wanted one that had both English-Chinese and Chinese-English and wasn’t too big. I didn’t need 100% of all Chinese words in existence, just a good deal more than I currently know, preferably those I’ll most likely encounter. Oxford and Tuttle were the main publishers who had options I considered. They both also made other versions that were too easy or too hard for me. I didn’t want a beginner’s dictionary and an advanced learner’s dictionary would be overkill at this time. The Tuttle pocket option was interesting, in fact I use their Pleco dictionary quite often. Meriam-Webster also publishes a dictionary, but after reading reviews, I decided that wasn’t the one for me at this time.

Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary
The Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, 4th Edition (2009)

I settled on the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary (4th edition), last revised in 2009, due to it having more description of the words and it being arranged in a way that made more sense in my mind. I was a bit wary of buying a 12-year-old dictionary, given how fast things are changing, but so far it seems fine. The vast majority of things I want to talk about any time soon are probably fairly static.


It may come to you as no surprise that the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary will not fit into your pocket, unless you have really big pockets and don’t mind whatever pocket you have it in pulling your piece of clothing down. It is not a full-sized book, so it’s easy to hold and take with you, but I doubt you’ll want it in a pocket.

Not a pocket dictionary
The not-so-pocket dictionary

Looking up English → Chinese

I’ve had the dictionary for a couple weeks now and I’ve been enjoying it. Looking up English words in order to find the Chinese translations is pretty straight forward. The English words are arranged alphabetically, as you’d expect.

The English pronunciation is listed, although I’ll admit I never really learned the international phonetic alphabet. Luckily, I don’t need to look up English pronunciation! It also lists the part of speech and potentially multiple translations including the Chinese characters and the pinyin.

Unfortunately, it seems the example sentences don’t have pinyin, so if I don’t know all of the Chinese words in the example sentences, I have to go the somewhat arduous process of looking them up. So far, I’ve not used this side of the dictionary as much as the other side. I suspect that differentiating between multiple definitions will be hard, but that is true of electronic dictionaries, too, especially considering true dictionaries rather than translators that account for context.

A page from the English to Chinese side
The English to Chinese side of the dictionary

Looking up Chinese → English

Looking up Chinese characters and words was the main reason I waited to buy a paper dictionary. I didn’t feel I had a good enough grasp of character structure at first to make this feasible. However, I now feel that I am ready for two reasons.

First, I am incredibly interested in characters and their components. I love digging into a character to guess at why this or that part is there. I may be wrong often, but it doesn’t matter. Spending extra time with a character helps me recall it when I see it or want to write it.

Second, I have exposure to a lot more characters now. I’ve encountered a large number of the most common components. This is helpful, because you have to be able to recognize the radical components to look up a character you don’t know the pinyin for.

What if I know the pinyin?

If you know the pinyin for a character or word, looking it up is fairly straightforward. The characters are arranged by pinyin first by sound then by tone. Words that start with the same character and pinyin are grouped together, which I find interesting. I like to see what other words can be made with the starting character, since it helps me understand more what the feeling is behind the character. I often use this feature in Pleco, too. Although, with Pleco, you can find the character anywhere in the word. If a character has more than one pinyin, you’ll find it under both places.

The Chinese to English side of the dictionary
The Chinese to English side of the dictionary

What if I don’t know the pinyin?

If you don’t know the pinyin, things get a little more interesting!

First, look up the radical that the character is organized under. What part of the character is the radical may or may not be obvious at first. There are around 188 radicals listed in this dictionary, sorted by the number of strokes in the radical. (I say “around” 188 because a few of them have more than one description for the same look-up number and I’m not yet sure why! At this point, that is not yet important to me to figure out.)

Find the radical and its associated number, then look up a list of characters that use that radical. The characters are mostly arranged according to how many more strokes are used in addition to the radical itself. Once the character is found in the list, the pinyin is listed, which leads the way to the entry for that character.

Index of radicals
Radical Index
List of characters by radical
List of characters by radical

This dictionary includes both traditional and simplified characters, although it focuses on simplified. (I preferred the focus on simplified characters.) It’s interesting, because often they are listed under the same radical, but, as expected, the traditional characters are farther down the list, since they have more strokes. Traditional characters are designated by parentheses, so they are easy to distinguish.

Other information

In the back of the dictionary, there is other information that can be very useful. There is a list of the Chinese words for provinces and regions. Unfortunately, an opportunity was missed here, in that the tones were left off of the pinyin. There are lists of common phrases. There are also Chinese and English model letters, which I think is a nice touch. However, the Chinese models are above my reading level at the moment. There is also a calendar of Chinese festivals and holidays, which is a nice little reference.


Do I really need a paper dictionary? Absolutely not. Compared to the excellent online resources available today, a paper dictionary is slower and harder to use. However, for those of us who learn better by slowing down and occasionally meandering through word lists, a paper dictionary can be a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf. I doubt that this Chinese dictionary will get the extensive use that my beloved German dictionary did back in ancient times before online resources existed, but for me, I think I will use it enough to justify the purchase.

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