(2012) Michael Allaby, Oxford University Press, £12.99 / US$21.95, pbk, pp ??. ISBN 978-0-199-60057-1.
Despite online facilities there is still a fundamental need for good dictionaries. Furthermore science is developing so fast – becoming more specialised, creating new disciplines and sub-disciplines – that there are ever an ever increasing number of specialist terms of which to come to grips. And then there are the multi and inter-disciplinarians, not to mention those whose own specialism straddles the boundary between more established areas of expertise. All this means that those reading as well as writing specialist texts need to have authoritative science dictionaries to hand and indeed I have several on the shelf right next to my PC, not to mention science nomenclature guides from the Institute of Biology (the first edition being the definitive one) and Biochemical Society (the latest edition is best) and I suspect I must turn to one or other of these at least once a day.
And so we come to Michael Allaby's dic' of plant sciences. Now the compiler has previous: he has produced a number of ecological and botanical dictionaries in his time (the areas in which he is strongest) as well on zoology and earth sciences. Indeed I regularly refer to his 1977 Dictionary of the Environment at which time he already was well into a meaningful career, and so I was a little, and pleasantly, surprised that 35 years on he was still at it. The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Sciences is now into its third edition, though was originally published as The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Plant Sciences in 1992 and only re-branded to its current title in 1998 and then updated in 2006. So a tad over half a decade on, with plenty of new science to cover, now is not a bad time for a new edition. New terms include 'evo-devo', 'polytomy' and 'parallel sequencing'.
OK that's the boring stuff out of the way. What you want to know is how good is it? Well I have a few test terms that I regularly use to check out dictionaries' definitions and I can say that this one passed: although had the definition of 'eukaryote' included a mention of membrane-bounded organelles (the 'prokaryote' definition was better) and that these two referred to each other, or given the approximate age in which 'Gondwana' existed in that term's definition, then I would have said that this dictionary passed with flying colours. It is also comprehensive in that it had all the terms I expected in a dictionary of this title. Better still, it had some short appendices that readers (users) will find most useful. These included one on systematic plant classification, a shortish one on science nomenclature (though every scientist should get the Units, Symbols and Abbreviations booklet from Royal Society of Medicine Services), and a geological table (brilliant, as this is often overlooked in biological science dictionaries, which is odd considering that plants (and animals) have been evolving over geological time and did not magically appear (or should that be 'Usshered') in the paltry few thousand years of human history). Spellings are British, and not American, Canadian or Australasian variations, and so are worthy of the journal Nature. Finally this dictionary has one more delight; occasionally there are small sketch line drawings. Not all science dictionaries have these, but used even sparingly they really do add to a dictionary's utility. Biologists, environmental scientists, palaeontologists and even zoologists (who themselves occasionally have to look at the greenery), and not just botanists, agricultural biologists and other plant scientists, will find this a handy book to include on their work-station's ready reference shelf.
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