Volume defines world's English

Words: A new dictionary aims to help Americans and other English-speakers to communiciate without confusion.

July 31, 1999|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Seeing the floor littered with stompies, the drissy wowser told the janitor to stop kicksin' and clean up before the bagmen arrive for the toenadering.


What sounds like gibberish is actually foreign English -- words used by folks in other countries who share the language with Americans, but with their own linguistic twists.

"Stompies" are cigarette butts in South Africa. New Zealanders use "drissy" as adjective meaning "frantic." A "wowser" is an Aussie with a puritanical disposition. On Caribbean islands, "kicksin' " equates to loafing. In Canada, a "bagman" is a political fund-raiser. And a "toenadering" is a gathering of political parties in South Africa.

All these terms -- and 400,000 or so others -- are defined in the new "Encarta World English Dictionary," which will be arriving in bookstores early in August.

The need for such a dictionary was spawned by the Internet, said Anne Soukhanov, general editor of the volume and "Word Watch" columnist for The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

"E-mail specifically has brought all generations of Americans close to their English-speaking neighbors from Canada to the Pacific Rim," she said in a telephone interview.

With instant global communications, "we need to be able to understand them and their cultures, and vice versa," Soukhanov explained.

Without a "world view," confusion is nearly certain because the same words can mean different things in different English-speaking countries.

In South Africa, for instance, a "robot" is what Americans call a "stop light." Job seekers in Southeast Asia give a "biodata" to prospective employers rather than a resume. In Australia, a hotel is an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages.

More than 1 billion people speak English, Soukhanov said. Of these, 375 million have English as their native tongue. An estimated 750 million people are trying to learn the language.

Around the world, people associate the English language with success, she said. "They view it as single most important communicative tool in their inventory."

Compilation of the global dictionary was a technological feat. Linked by e-mail, more than 320 lexicographers (dictionary editors), linguists and other specialists worked at their computer screens for more than two years in 20 nations. Soukhanov did most of her work from her restored historic farmhouse in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

"I thought of it as a huge global office," said Soukhanov, who was executive editor of the "American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language," published in 1992, and co-author of the 1997 book "Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley."

A dictionary and reference book editor for more than two decades, Soukhanov said the American version of English "seems to keep expanding and expanding." New words are especially generated in the pop culture, digital industries and medical fields.

The new dictionary defines "yadda yadda yadda" as slang for "boring, trite, superficial, unending talk." But "Seinfield" fans already knew that. A "chiphead" is skilled at computer use, and a "stealth tower" is an ecologically friendly, camouflaged telecommunications tower. A "selfish gene" is one that "exploits the organism in which it occurs as a vehicle for self-preservation."

"English is definitely a work in progress," said Soukhanov, describing how the language is constantly adding computer terms such as "drag and drop," historic references such as "Dayton Accords," and e-mail abbreviations like LOL for "laughing out loud."

The dictionary will be published in print form by St. Martin's Press and on a CD-ROM by Microsoft. The book will sell for $50. The CD-ROM will be priced at $39.95 with a $20 mail-in rebate.


Some examples of foreign English:

Air Screw: noun. An aircraft propeller in the United Kingdom.

Bangbelly: n. A Canadian term for a piece of dough that has been fried, baked or stewed.

Bazodee: adjective. A Caribbean description for confused or dazed.

Black Stump: n. An Australian term for an imaginary stump that marks the edge of civilization.

Cack-handed: adj. Clumsy in the United Kingdom.

Dinkum: adj. Reliable or genuine in Australia.

Dunny: n. A bathroom or lavatory in Australia.

Flying Wing: n. In Canadian football, the 12th player, who has lines up at varying spots behind the line of scrimmage.

Identity. n. In Australia, a celebrity or somebody who is well-known in a particular field.

Masala: n. A casual conversation in South Asia.

Tickety-Boo. adj. Perfectly fine in the United Kingdom or A-OK in the USA.

Totsiens: n. A friendly welcome in South Africa.

Cox News Service

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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