Look It Up

Digital dictionaries make money, but worry wordsmiths

September 11, 2000|By David D. Kirkpatrick | David D. Kirkpatrick,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Alogomachy - n. an argument about words - is brewing on the World Wide Web.

Houghton-Mifflin plans to publish the fourth edition of its American Heritage dictionary this month, the volume's first major overhaul in eight years. The new edition is full of changes sure to arouse lexicographers - color illustrations, notes on slang and a new appendix describing Semitic as well as Indo-European roots.

But the change by the publisher that has stirred the most excitement is happening outside the covers, as Houghton-Mifflin hustles to sell electronic versions of its dictionary for inclusion in other companies' software, Web sites and digital publications.

Houghton-Mifflin is not alone. Its major rivals - most notably Merriam-Webster and Microsoft Corp.'s year-old Encarta dictionary - are stepping up their digital dictionary efforts to tap an increasingly lucrative market, setting up a business contest that philologists say will also have consequences for the way Americans use English.

Electronic novels might be making headlines these days, but electronic dictionaries are making money. At Houghton-Mifflin, licensing of digital dictionaries is expected to account for more than $1 million in profit this year, more than 10 percent of the earnings from the company's trade and reference division, according to Wendy Strothman, the division's publisher.

Stifled for years by low margins and flat sales, dictionary publishers are salivating over digital sales and licensing as a new source of revenue growth, promoting flashy new features such as audible pronunciations. But word scholars worry that the new pressures of the online market might end up favoring well-connected or well-positioned dictionaries - some sniffingly note Microsoft's Encarta - over more authoritative lexicons.

Many lexicographers first saw the Internet as a terrific new tool, especially because it made possible electronic texts of nearly infinite length. That impulse inspired the Oxford University Press to revise its 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary for the first time since its completion in 1928.

A new online version of the OED is available to subscribers for fees starting at $550 a year. Researchers are posting the revisions and additions online in stages, and they expect to finish the alphabet in about 40 volumes around 2010. Oxford University Press has not decided whether it will publish a new printed version, too, said Jesse Sheidlower, its American editor.

Potential to share

The Internet also enables rival dictionary compilers to share a common digital "corpus," or archive of usage samples. Inspired by the British National Corpus that was established in 1993, a group of publishers and linguists based in New York is raising funds and gathering material to build an American National Corpus of 100 million words in texts of all kinds, including transcript, newspapers and novels.

But the American National Corpus has yet to win help from many of the nation's big dictionary publishers, who would stand to lose the advantage of their own proprietary archives. "We think we have our needs pretty well served," said John Morse, president and publisher of the Merriam-Webster, the United States' oldest and best-selling dictionary, with an archive of more than 15 million citations.

The World Wide Web is also a gold mine for linguistic research. For the first time, scholars can trace the infancy of new words as they bubble up from narrow subcultures through online discussion groups and eventually into general use, said Michael Adams, a professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania and editor of the journal Dictionaries.

Adams recently published a study of new coinages from the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - "slayage" and many other -age formations, for example - tracking their progress from teen-age fans' Web sites to magazines including Mademoiselle. He argues that Buffy has also spawned novel uses of "much," as in "pathetic much?" "morbid much?" or "Having issues much?"

But Microsoft's Encarta dictionary, billed as the first lexicon for the Digital Age, has some lexicographers shaking their heads, partly because they worry that it could indeed be the dictionary of the future.

The idea for the Encarta was born in the early 1990s, when Nigel Newton, chief executive of the British publishing house Bloomsbury, wrote Bill Gates a letter proposing to create a dictionary of "world English."

At the time, Microsoft was paying Houghton-Mifflin to license online versions of its American Heritage dictionary to use in Microsoft's spell-checking software and to bundle with its Encarta digital encyclopedia. Why pay Houghton-Mifflin, Newton suggested, when the two companies could build a wordbook of their own? Bloomsbury developed the dictionary, selling international digital rights to Microsoft and the American rights to Holtzbrinck Publishers' St. Martins Press.

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