Book review – Oxford Dictionary of Zoology (Fifth Edition)

8-minute read

This review marks the three-year anniversary of this blog. I would have loved to be able to write that this is also the 300th review, but, well, 2020 had other plans. I guess 275 is also a nice round number. For this review—insert obligatory Monty Python reference—something completely different. The Inquisitive Biologist reviews… a dictionary?

Oxford Dictionary of Zoology

Oxford Dictionary of Zoology, written by Michael Allaby, published by Oxford University Press in June 2020 (paperback, 722 pages)

Why? Because dictionaries are books too. But… how? That is a trickier question. Normally, I read the books that I review cover to cover, but even I am not so eccentric as to read a dictionary in its entirety. Instead, I have kept it close at hand while reviewing zoologically-themed books over the last few months. But first, some background.

Science writer Michael Allaby has been compiling technical dictionaries since 1976, first with MacMillan and since 1984 also with Oxford University Press. He now looks after five of their dictionaries: Zoology, Ecology, Plant Sciences, Environment & Conservation, and Geology & Earth Sciences (which I frequently use), all of which have gone into multiple editions. These are part of the Oxford Quick Reference series, formerly known as the Oxford Paperback Reference series, which contains other dictionaries on topics such as biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. The zoology dictionary reviewed here has been published under various titles in 1991, 1999, 2009, 2014, and, in this fifth edition, in 2020. Interestingly, the number of entries has hovered somewhere between 5–6,000 since the first edition, suggesting that each revision that added new words will also have dropped others.

The dictionaries in this range are compact, printed on thin (but not too thin) paper. Gouged-out thumb tabs are a feature you rarely see nowadays, and would only work for a larger hardcover dictionary anyway. Instead, full-bleed printing results in grey tabs visible on the side of the closed book. Entries at the top further help you quickly hone in on the term you are looking for. Next to the common names (see below), there is a series of short appendices with the terms used for endangered animals, the genetic code, the geologic timescale, SI units, metric prefixes (milli, micro, nano, etc.), a table with extant animal phyla, and the hierarchy used in taxonomic classification (species, genus, family, etc.). There are over sixty line drawings scattered throughout, mostly clarifying morphological terms, but this is no illustrated dictionary.

“The reason I speak in tongues here […] is exactly to show you why you need a dictionary.”

Utility is, of course, the be-all and end-all of any dictionary. The first entries I looked up were monophyly, polyphyly, and paraphyletic (there is no entry for paraphyly), which describe different patterns of evolutionary relatedness; sympatric, allopatric, and peripatric, which are different patterns of speciation; and holotype, lectotype, and syntype, which describe different categories of specimens in taxonomy used to define and name a species. I admit this to my shame—as an evolutionary biologist I should know these by heart, yet I still get confused. Concise definitions are given here, sometimes in one sentence, sometimes in a paragraph.

While I was reviewing Desert Navigator I read about ants that are eusocial1, brachypterous2, and, in some cases, practice thelytoky3. Some are crepuscular4, and some show torpor5. Their morphology mentioned parts such as a petiole6 and a pygidium7.

Mark Witton populated his book Life through the Ages II with temnospondyls8, procolophonids9, pareiasaurs10, perissodactyls11, and artiodactyls12. One feature of this dictionary is that it includes a large number of entries for order and family names. For this edition, common names have been moved from the main entries to a 50-page appendix. So, the whale groups odontocetes and mysticetes are in the main dictionary, but the rorqual (a species) is in the appendix.

A random sampling reveals such lexicographical jewels as Aristotle’s lantern13, hypsodont14, orthokinesis15, or synecology16.

“Detractors might […] ask why you would bother with a paper dictionary. Everything is online anyway nowadays […]”

The reason I speak in tongues here and only give the definitions at the end is exactly to show you why you need a dictionary. Like most scientists, biologists are hyper-specialized within their subdisciplines. No matter how knowledgeable you are in your discipline, papers and technical books only slightly outside of your field will contain unfamiliar terminology.

Naturally, you have to make a selection when compiling a dictionary, so I could not find everything. Necromones and polydomous were missing. Perhaps they were too specific? Other omissions are harder to understand. mt-DNA (mitochondrial DNA) is in, but ncDNA is not (it stands for non-coding DNA, by the way, not nuclear DNA). Speaking of diets, folivorous (leaf-eating) is in, but graminivorous (grass-eating) is not, nor is granivorous (grain-eating). Looking at whale morphology, melon (fatty tissue in the forehead used in vocalization) is in, but junk (the analogous structure in sperm whales) is not. And the entry for Testudines does not clear up the linguistic differences between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

Detractors might look at this and ask why you would bother with a paper dictionary. Everything is online anyway nowadays and just a search on Google or Wikipedia away. True, but is it not ironic that when you look up online the first word in this dictionary, abaptation, you find the definition that Allaby wrote for this dictionary? Let us not forget the lexicographical work and research that goes into writing a dictionary.

“[…] it is easy to forget that online access is a privilege that we in the Western world take for granted but that is not universal.”

I am no techno-Luddite making the case that a paper dictionary is superior to an online one. There are many advantages that a paper dictionary cannot replicate (the almost unlimited amount of words you can find online, the option to quickly update definitions and correct mistakes). OUP offers online versions of its dictionaries, and the third edition of their Environment & Conservation one is now online only (though trying to figure out how to subscribe to it as a private individual send me down a confusing warren).

But online has downsides too. Most online resources are free and (partially) depend on annoying adverts to pay their bills. Sitting down at a computer brings the risk of easy distraction, whereas with a printed book it is just me and the words. The worst that can happen is that I look up other words. The trustworthiness of online resources can be questionable, so further research might be needed anyway. And when I read a (printed) book, I am seated in a comfortable spot, not at my computer, so it is far easier to have a dictionary within arm’s reach. And as opposed to websites or internet connections, books cannot go offline. Plus, it is easy to forget that online access is a privilege that we in the Western world take for granted but that is not universal.

Clearly, a printed dictionary is a personal preference. I have found that I use the technical dictionaries I have regularly. I would even argue there is space in the Oxford Quick Reference range for a few more. A dictionary dedicated to evolutionary biology & palaeontology? I would buy it instantly (Springer publishes a palaeontological dictionary, but at their usual absurd price). And an entomological dictionary would also be very welcome. The affordability and authoritativeness are enough for me to make the OUP dictionaries my first port of call.

1 eusociality: a social structure in which only one female in a community produces offspring
2 brachypterous: insects in which both pairs of wings are reduced.
3 thelytoky: obligatory *parthenogenesis, with Allaby providing a paragraph of interesting background and examples. The asterisk, by the way, indicates that parthenogenesis, too, is an entry in the dictionary.
4 crepuscular: of the twilight (what a beautiful pithy definition), applied to animals that are active at dusk.
5 torpor: a physiological response where the body temperature drops close to the environmental temperature to save energy.
6 petiole: a wasp waist, the constriction at the base of the *gaster… wait, what is the gaster?
gaster: a part of the abdomen in Hymenoptera. (No mention is made here that petiole is also a well-known botanical term, which is fair enough in a zoology dictionary, I guess.)
7 pygidium: the terminal segment of an insect.
8 Temnospondyla: a subclass of Carboniferous to Early Jurassic amphibians.
9 Procolophonia: A family of relatively advanced stem reptiles.
10 Pareiasauridae: A family that comprises the largest of the stem reptiles.
11 Perissodactyla: ungulates with an odd number of toes (one or three).
12 Artiodactyla: even-toed ungulates. And for those who need reminding, ungulates are hoofed, grazing mammals.
13 Aristotle’s lantern: the jaw apparatus of echinoderms.
14 hypsodont: teeth with high crowns and short roots.
15 orthokinesis: the movement of an animal in response to a stimulus where the speed of the movement is proportional to stimulus strength.
16 synecology: the study of whole plant and animal communities.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Oxford Dictionary of Zoology (5th edition)

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.