4 Types of Reference Books You Didn’t Know You Need

By Mark Nichol

OK, it’s time to conduct an inventory of your reference library to ensure that you have a comprehensive collection at hand. Dictionary? Check. Thesaurus? Mm-hmm. Compendium of famous quotations? Right. Visual dictionary? (Silence.)

You’re telling me you don’t have a visual dictionary?

Before you get too self-conscious, I’ll let you off the hook: You don’t have to own your own visual dictionary. But you should know where to find this type of resource, and three others, at your local library, or you simply must do some online research and see what electronic simulacra you can discover.

1. Visual Dictionaries

The four books listed here are all superior guides to the names of physical objects and their components. Does a scene in your novel require you to distinguish the parts of a plane? Do you need to know the difference in home construction between a rafter and a joist? What is the base of a horse’s neck called? A visual dictionary knows all:

2. Guides to Symbolism

These five volumes, and others, will enlighten you about the religious, mythological, and folkloric significance of symbols. Perhaps you want to strew visual metaphors throughout your novel. Or you want to avoid cliched occult symbols in your supernatural thriller, and want to find something unusual. Or you want to make sure your medieval mystery accurately describes a cross without anachronistic errors. Follow the signs to these sources about symbology:

3. Guides to Hierarchies

Do you know the order of succession among Cabinet officials in the United States in case the president, vice president, and Speaker of the House are all incapacitated? Is a battalion bigger, or smaller, than a regiment? What’s higher up the taxonomic scale — a phylum, or a family? The Order of Things: How Everything in the World Is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders, Barbara Ann Kipfer, will set you straight.

4. Reverse Dictionaries

Flip Dictionary, Barbara Ann Kipfer, is the best of the class of reference books known as reverse dictionaries, for when you know how to describe something but can’t think of the word. One of the qualities that set it apart is the numerous charts and tables that group things by subject. The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations, David Grambs, is a similar work that’ll help you transfer a word from the tip of your tongue to paper or the computer screen.

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2 Responses to “4 Types of Reference Books You Didn’t Know You Need”

  • Kathryn

    Interesting (and, yes, I DO have a visual dictionary, although it is over a decade old. . .maybe I should update). I would also recomend “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable”, which is invaluable in tracking down references in the UK and American tradition (it is also available online at Bibliomania.com, but I haven’t explored that much as I tend to consult my print version). Oh–and some good slang dictionaries are always a plus–I have two, plus a thesaurus of slang, but they are all pretty old so I’d hesitate to recommend them as standards. . .but it is not a bad idea to have one on hand.

  • Richard Adin

    I agree with much of your list, but note several missing items that I think are equally as important for both writers and editors. For example, it is often important to know the etymology of a word. Knowing the etymology can help you create new words for your new civilization. One good source is Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. I particularly like Anatoly Liberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, but it is extremely limited in its scope — the analysis is the best I’ve ever seen, but he only analyzes 50 words.

    Having dictionaries available are important, as well as phrase books such as the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, but usage guides, like Garner’s Modern American Usage, are equally important. Should it be compose or comprise?

    A handy little dictionary is Rosalie Maggio’s The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language.

    Finally, although not readily available but well worth locating are these books: Mitford Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms (want to know if an expression was used in 1890 and what it meant?), Roland Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words (need to make up a word for some futuristic device? Why not create a word that really does have some meaning?), Benson, Benson, & Ilson’s The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, and Michael Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary.

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