The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

by David Crystal

February 16th, 2009

"The light is defined by the shadow." This old aphorism of mine expresses an important and rarely understood point. When creating any communication, what you don't say is every bit as important as what you do say. The absence of information can sometimes communicate more than the information itself. The example I have always used to illustrate this point is the selection of the most enticing clothing for the female body. A simple-minded person might think that the naked female body would be the sexiest, because everything is presented to the male eye. Fortunately, women are not so simple-minded; they have known from time immemorial that the artfully concealed curve can excite more interest than the real thing. Overly skimpy attire has some shock value, but the most seductive attire combines concealment with revelation in some magical mixture.

So it is in all forms of communication, including writing. A good writer provides just enough information to keep the reader's mind moving, but not so much as to bog the reader down. Sadly, most writers indulge themselves in orgies of verbiage, and that is why we have editors, whose primary task is always to cut, to slice, and to pare down. The editor's task is a thankless one, for it is all too easy to criticize a work for any absence of material, but more difficult to criticize too much material.

In 1987 Cambridge Press published the first edition of David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, and a masterwork it was. I loved it. Even after reading it I kept it on my bedstand, to dip into randomly for the delight of the various spreads. The book had a unique design: each topic was rigorously held to a single two-page spread. The spreads were modular; you could open the book to any page and read the spread you found and take something interesting from it.

The book was so successful that in 1997 Cambridge Press prevailed upon David Crystal to produce a second edition. And what should a second edition do other than to build on the first edition? The presumption was that the second edition should be bigger than the first edition. If 300 pages was good, then 480 pages had to be better, right?

Wrong. After lending my copy of the first edition to a perfidious borrower, I bought the second edition. Where the first edition was a delightful romp, the second edition was a tedious slog. All the secondary material that had been wisely kept out of the first edition was ladled into the second edition. And so "Improved! Bigger! Better!" turned out to be "Fatter! Clumsier! Duller!" The dolphin had turned into a manatee. Bleah!