The Chambers Dictionary

Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary was first published in 1901, under the industrious editorship of Thomas Davidson. The dictionary was to become the recommended source for crossword puzzles because of the inclusion of obsolete, dialectical and Scottish words in its extensive lexicon. Dictionary fans loved the quirky and individualistic definitions which were started by Davidson and continued by later editors. William Geddie, in his preface to the 1962 edition, commented on these amateur lexicographers. 'Scores of users have sent in single words and lists of words. We have not accepted all their definitions. One was disappointed not to find myristicivorous, feeding upon nutmegs, a word to which we grant this place on the doorstep but still deny admission to the dictionary.' The Rev. Thomas Davidson served with the Edinburgh firm of Chambers for 17 years over the turn of the century. He was a clergyman by profession, but spent much of his life in literary work, particularly in editing reference works. In 1914 he took up the charge of a church in south Ayshire, and he died in 1923 at the age of 67.

After Davidson's departure from Chambers his post was filled by the brothers William and Liddell Geddie, who supervised and carried out editorial work up to the greatly refashioned edition of 1952.  The Geddie brothers, noted for their whimsicality as well as their scholarship. were responsible for a number of unconventional definitions, among them William's picturesque baby-sitter - 'one who mounts guard over a baby to relieve the usual attendant', and Liddell's famous definition of éclair - 'a cake long in shape but short in duration'. Miss A M Macdonald, assistant editor under the Geddies and subsequently chief editor of the 1972 edition, realising that the dictionary was now being increasingly used by 'English learners', especially in the emergent countries, was inclined to take a somewhat critical view of some of her predecessors' flights of  'innocent merriment', hence the modification, even the disappearance, of some of the old favourites. Not surprisingly, the gibe in Davidson's new woman - 'a name applied, especially by scoffers in the late 19th century, to such women as actively sought freedom and equality with men'. One definition, in a prewar supplement, had a very short life: vamp - 'a featherless bird of prey'.

Some of the unique definitions to be found in earlier editions of Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary were noted in correspondences to The Listener in 1979.

The editors of the latest edition of the Chambers Dictionary (1998)  state in their preface - 'Those many users who have enjoyed the uniquely witty definitions of Chambers (eg éclair) will be pleased to find that we have added some more.' In his monthly slip, the crossword setter Azed, himself a lexicographer, has indicated the absence of identify as well as the placing of oblong before Oblomovism, and has suggested the definitions of the following as humorous entries in the current edition - bafflegab, Jacquard loom, and  perpetrate.

I would welcome more new definitions, if you stumble across them.

Derek Harrison 

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