Vol. 5. No. 2 R-7 September 2001
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

A-Z of Modern America

Alicia Duchak (1999)
London: Routledge
Pp. xv + 405
ISBN: 0-415-18756-7 (paper)
10.99

Alicia Duchak has completed the enormous task of writing a much-needed cultural dictionary on contemporary America. A-Z of Modern America with its dimensions of 234x156 mm is easy to transport, and more importantly it is easy to read.

The entries in this new dictionary are on important people; legal, religious and governmental practices; and terms from American life, customs (e.g. holidays), clothing, and education. Duchak has selected information on minorities, civil rights, and multiculturalism. She can also be applauded for choosing to include some entries from the field of history indispensable to understanding America today, reaching as far back as the Colonial Period. In addition, this work is loaded with terms from pop culture, ranging from big hair to drive through to songs such as "Auld Lang Syne" or Old MacDonald". Nevertheless, formal words specific to certain fields such as law (e.g. acquittal or subpoena) and medicine (e.g. co-payment or hospice) were not ignored. Thus, it can be easily said that there is something for everyone in this handy, single-volume reference work. Apart from the over 3,000 definitions, this dictionary contains a list of abbreviations, nickname abbreviations, a sample page, appendixes, and indexes.

Because all definitions are listed under the full names in alphabetical order, the register of nickname abbreviations assists the user in quickly finding the appropriate entry. Another user-friendly aspect of A-Z of Modern America is the sample page, a guide on the use of the dictionary. Duchak has created her own categorization system in which cross-referenced related entries are shown in small caps, while information in parentheses indicate the area or field (e.g. science, immigration, history, sports, media, etc.) in which the main word is used. Used more sparingly are brackets which contain derivations and/or the history of the main word. While the guide is helpful, an explanation of pronunciation in phonetic script would have made the work even more accessible to the ESL/EFL student. Because most of the entries are nouns, the omission of information on the "parts of speech" and usage does not detract from the overall impression. [-1-]

The bulk of A-Z of Modern America is dedicated to concise but lucid definitions. In general, I have no major quibbles with the words selected for the volume, but at the same time I feel that the work advertised as a "comprehensive cultural dictionary" should have covered the area of technology (e.g. voice mail, SMS, or cell phone). Because there is no introduction, it is difficult to ascertain the criteria used for word selection. One wonders, for example, why Have a nice day! is explained but How are you?, a highly problematic phrase for those not familiar with American culture, is not. Why select Murphy Brown and not the Cosby Show? Why choose Avon and not Tupperware? Hopefully, a second edition would correct these problems by expanding dictionary coverage and providing a meaningful explanation of how the words were chosen.

The appendixes cover the states, Presidents, professional teams, a table of grading systems, bowl games, military ranks, and diagrams of the educational levels, baseball diamond, and football field. The indexes complete the work and are ordered by field, containing lists of related words, names, or terms. Cross-referencing occurs only in the dictionary entries and not in the indexes, so Sitting Bull, for instance, is listed under people and not minorities. Cross-referencing and including page numbers next to each entry would save the user time and hassle. Another improvement I would be looking for is a list of dictionaries or other encyclopedias on the subject areas listed in the indexes which readers could consult for more detailed cultural information. Here Macmillan Library Reference's Encyclopedia of American Social History or Jan Harold Bruvand's American Folklore. An Encyclopedia come to mind.

While A-Z of Modern America would make an excellent addition to any library, it would also serve as handy reference work to students and instructors of American culture and civilization around the world.

Sabrina Voelz
Universitaet Lueneburg, Germany
<Voelz@uni-lueneburg.de>

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
[-2-]