THERE ARE TWO possible approaches to the Morris Dictionary: for the casual browser - the word-lover pursuing a desultory hobby - it offers 654 pages and endless hours of happy serendipity; for the serious scholar, it is more like a folk-source, to be explored, tested, perhaps pillaged but not relied upon automatically and entirely. Its curious unevenness reflects its origins in a newspaper column rather than in systematic team research. It is readable as salted peanuts are edible, and most of what it does (including primary research on such terms as "motel" and "hooker," good, routine notices on such items as "incunabula" and "Plimsoll line," an exquisitely precise description of the difference between "phonograph" and "gramophone") it does very well.
But in what it does not dor or does incompletely or incorrectly, it forfeits serious scholarly credentials. "Cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas," for example, are both discussed, but there is no mention of the German version of the former ("Katzenjammer," enshrined in the name of a comic strip) that links it to the latter.
The authors are spotty on foreign languages: "Quis custodiet custodes" begins with "Quid" in this compendium, and one doubts that it is a misprint (though there are others) because it appears in alphabetical order just before "quiddity." The definition of "benny" as a jazz term for "pawn-broker" is incomplete or out of date; the etymologies for "lagniappe" and "hip cat" ignore Dillard's research on possible American Indian and Gullah roots. The authors invent new terms for phobias by grafting Latin to Greek roots, a process which can only be called barbaric, although it is becoming shockingly common.
On the other hand, after decades of wondering what was meant by "throw the hoolihan" in an old cowboy song used by Copland for a set by variations, I have been thoroughly satisfied. I am indebted to the authors for a succinct, delightful discussion of "quack," a charming anecdote on the pronunication of Lord Home's name, a speculative but interesting exploration of the slang origins of "slang," and above all for a constantly charming style.
Partridge's Origins is a serious, thorough, businesslike (and, by the same token, end anecdotally readable) survey of the way words have migrated from one language to another, their far-flung kinships within and across various linguistic families from Sanskrit to modern English and the often paradoxical transformations of meaning that a particular root-sound has undergone in its wanderings through time and space. Particularly interesting to specialists, it can also be recommended to highly motivated amateurs who wonder where the words they use every day have come from and how they got here.
Although this is self-styled a "short" dictionary, it will be quite thorough enough for most readers; half a page, for example, is given to the curiously intertwined nest of words related to "reptile" and a full page to "native." This is a reprint of the fourth edition, which dates from 1966, and you won't find "bionic" or "finalize" in it, but it explores the permanent heritage of our language with exemplary skill and dedication.