B A Dictionary of Pharmacology and Allied Topics (2nd edition) edited by Desmond Laurence, with contributions from John Carpenter Elsevier, 1998. $187.00 (hardbound) $46.00 (paperback) (xii + 373 pages) ISBN 0 444 82591 6 (hardbound) 0 444 50050 2 (paperback)
English dictionaries were originally selective glossaries, often of so-called ‘hard words’. However, in the 18th century they became repositories of comprehensive ranges of words, exemplified by dictionaries such as those by Nathaniel Bailey (1721) and Samuel Johnson (1755), and followed Benjamin Martin’s plan for his Lingua Britannica Reformata (1749) that dictionaries should be universal, etymological, orthographical, orthoepical and diacritical. Today we expect monolingual dictionaries to cover the waterfront, from a to zyzzogeton. And they do – up to a point, for how many words, for example at the margins of occupational jargon, can you include in even the most thoroughly prepared dictionary? Search the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), for example, the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language and a masterpiece of scholarship, for words such as zyzzogeton and technical words in many other fields, and you will do so in vain. So, just as the 18th century saw the abandonment of specialized dictionaries, the 20th century has seen their reintroduction, to cope with the new kinds of ‘hard words’ – specialized jargon (‘any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade, or profession’ – OED).
Of course, not all professional words are hard ones. Take the word concentration, for instance; in its pharmacological sense, it is a straightforward enough concept. In the Dent Dictionary of Measurement (J. M. Dent, 1994) it is defined as ‘The amount of a particular substance in a mixture or solution.’ But, to my surprise, when I looked for it in the OED I couldn’t find it. Not that concentration isn’t there—it is, with seven main definitions—but none is the meaning defined above. How, in the absence of its authoritative influence, do Laurence and Carpenter match up? Well, better than Dent: ‘The amount (mass or weight) of dissolved substance in a given volume.’ [Although a combination of the two would have been better still.] And while Dent adds no more than a few examples of how concentrations are expressed, Laurence and Carpenter follow up with details of the different meanings of percentage concentrations and justifiably add a note condemning the use of level as an imprecise synonym for concentration. The ‘hard words’ get good treatment too. Contragonist (a word that I coined in 1982, but which to my disappointment has appeared on only six occasions in refereed journals) is cross-referenced to its synonym inverse agonist (which in contrast yields 792 hits on Medline). The latter is explained twice, first by the authors and then as defined by the International Union of Pharmacology Committee on Receptor Nomenclature and Drug Classification (1995). And, by the by, have you heard of the bi-bi mechanism? No? Well, see ping-pong.
Although modern lexicographers are supposed to document and not comment, here (in the best tradition of dictionary making) there is no shrinking from robust opinions, giving the dictionary a distinctive flavour. We learn, for instance, that ‘the misspelling [adrenalin] is common and derives from . . . the general illiteracy of journalists’, and that ‘[the spelling foetus] has the distinction of [having been] wrong for the past 400 years’ [just over, actually; see BMJ (1997), 315, 225]. And Timothy Leary is described as ‘a messiah, martyr and high priest of the psychedelic [whose] deep religious experiences led him to ask such profound questions as “Why?” and “So what?”. There is also a long list of laws, such as Murphy’s in its various forms (e.g. ‘If anything can go wrong it will’), although I missed my favourite: O’Toole’s Corollary – that Murphy was optimistic. The book has a wide scope, encompassing terms in basic pharmacology and toxicology, various aspects of clinical pharmacology and drug use, some statistics and law, and a few other words thrown in for good measure (chaos, euphemism and jargon, to pick a few at anything but random). Dip into it stochastically (q.v.) just before a tutorial and you will find some topic or other to stimulate discussion. Laurence and Carpenter don’t give us a to zyzzogeton, but they do a good job of giving us the pharmacological equivalent, a to zwitterion. Jeffrey K. Aronson University Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Radcliffe Infirmary, Woodstock Road, Oxford, UK OX2 6HE.
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TiPS – March 1999 (Vol. 20)