A brand new dictionary brings global English into the present

On books

August 22, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

A completely new dictionary is just out, the first major one published since the distinguished "Random House Dictionary of the English Language" in 1966. In these babblingly innovative times, a third of a century is a long, long time. Thousands of new words have grown from technological progress alone. Usage has scampered all over the place.

The new arrival is "Encarta World English Dictionary." The book form, published and marketed in the United States by St. Martin's Press, is 2,078 pages long, weighs seven pounds and sells for $50. A computer version is being marketed by Microsoft in CD-ROM form for $39, minus a mail-in rebate of $20. It's also available as part of an enormous, six-disk package, "Encarta Reference Suite 2000," containing an impressive encyclopedia and an atlas and more, at $99.

Making "Encarta" was managed by an entity called "The Reference Productivity Products Group of the Microsoft Corporation" -- hardly poetry, but then the corporate bosses there are nerds or wonks or both. (Yes, both terms are in the dictionary.) Those tendencies do not show in the work. "Encarta" itself, if you go by the "Encarta World Dictionary," is not a word at all. The term was coined by and is a registered trademake of Microsoft. It's derived, more of less, from "en-" (within) and "carta" (meaning map or document).

The contents are a collaboration of Microsoft people and Bloomsbury Publishing, plc, a British firm, over the last three years. A staff of 320 lexicographers, editors and consultants from 20 English-speaking countries largely built the dictionary with e-mail, Microsoft marketers report. The book is addressed to the estimated 750 million English speakers circling the globe.

It is modern -- in content and emphasis. An example that tells that story quite succinctly is the full entry for the word "babe":

"babe [bayb] n. (plural babes) 1. lover: used as an affectionate term of address to a lover or somebody you love (slang) 2. young woman considered good-looking an young woman who is considered good-looking (slang, sometimes considered offensive) 3. baby: a baby or small child (literary or archaic) 4. handsome youth: an attractive young man (slang) [14th century. Origin uncertain, probably from obsolete baban [baby, ultimately an imitation of childish utterances.]"

All that is followed by two phrase usages and explanations of them: "a babe in arms" and "a babe in the woods."

The repeated, bold-face phrase in entry #2 is what the editors call a "Quick Definition," which in many cases precedes more elaborate ones, for the sake of efficiency. To my eye, it seems intrusive more often than helpful; but it's hardly a fault. The incorrect "an" before "young" is in the book and on the disk as well. I did not set out looking for errors. Clearly, there's some cleaning up to do.

But to my ear and based on my experience, the definitions and the way they are sequenced -- to denote a hierarchy of contemporary usage -- is right on target.

The last word entry in the dictionary is "zzz":

"zzz [zz] (plural zzz's) n. a representation of the sound made by somebody sleeping or snoring, often used in cartoons (humorous)."

On the CD, many words have a little pronunciation icon; click it and a pleasant man's voice speaks the word. There is no sound icon for the "zzz" entry.

On the disk, but not in the printed book, there comes a longish series of entries that begin with numerals or punctuation marks. One example is "$64,000 Question" which is accompanied by a Nielsen Media Research table showing that it was the top-rated television show in America, 1955-56. Another, which could be taken to open fresh horizons, is: ".ab.ca (dot-A-B dot-C-A) noun on the Internet, the major geographic domain specifying that an address is located in Alberta, Canada."

Beyond extra content, is the CD-ROM version more useful, convenient than the book? For me, at least, the answer came quickly and irresistibly. My nature is vastly more bookish than electronic. But with the program loaded in my 4-year-old, relatively simple, first-generation Pentium, Windows 95 home computer, I found myself doing most of the work for this column -- exploring, copying -- on the computer, not by thumbing through the book.

That book is handsome, and I suspect it will become the main dictionary I use from here on -- sending into retirement, after an honest lifetime, my beloved "Webster's Collegiate Dictionary" Second Edition (1944), putting my treasured miniaturized copy of the full "Oxford English Dictionary" aside for only the most serious business. But I have a gnawing suspicion that the engaging seven-pound volume will get far less use by me than the electronic form.

Both forms are rich and often delicious. There are usage essays and synonym essays, etymologies and word origins. Many are quite elaborate and entertaining; all I checked were satisfying -- not to the enormous depth of the OED, but what can be? Modernity is all over the place: "Wag the Dog syndrome" appears as a phrase. Elizabeth Dole, Steve Jobs and Tiger Woods are among some 5,000 people who get biographical notes. There are about 5,000 geographical notes as well.

And in both paper and electronic forms, there are some marvelous multicultural neologisms, if you can keep your wit about you and your stomach settled. One notable -- if execrable -- example:

"ableism [ay'bliz'm] n. discrimination in favor of those who are not considered to be physically or mentally challenged/ ableist, adj., n."

Hateful? Disgusting? Well, no. After all, you might need to look it up. And it's a sign of contemporary fads and fashions -- and the ever-evolving, ever-fascinating English language.

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