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Oxford blue over arrival of Encarta upstart

Doctor Johnson (right) would not be amused. What's the point of having world-beating content if you don't make the best of it? Hugh John describes how Bill Gates' and Bloomsbury's nimble Encarta dictionary beats an Oxford classic

Dictionary: "A book containing the words of any language in alphabetical order; with explanations of their meaning; a lexicon; a vocabulary; a word book." Samuel Johnson's definition remained fixed through four editions of his own majestic, "Dictionary of the English Language". As we enter the 21st century, however, is it fanciful to suggest the art of lexicography is on the cusp?

The recent publication of electronic dictionaries from Oxford University Press and Microsoft and Bloomsbury Press on CD-Rom readily lends itself to cliche: Academia versus Profit; Old Order against New; Knowledge versus the New Barbarism; Core Content against Added Value. The truth, as you might expect, is more complex.

First published in 1928, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains almost 60 million words, 300,000 entries and more than 2 million quotations. There have been significant changes since the first CD-Rom was released in 1992, not all of them for the better. The demands on your Windows PC have now mushroomed. (System requirements are a 200MHZ Pentium PC with Windows 95 or later, 64MB of memory and a humongous 750 MB of hard disk space. The original single CD-Rom required 2MB of memory and a measly 1MB on the hard disk!).

The dictionary is supplied on two CDs, one solely for installation purposes. Once the application is installed, the second disk must be inserted for "authentication" each time it is used thereafter. And that's the first problem; the authentication process is inordinately slow. From boot-up to opening screen can take the better part of two minutes.

The homepage has been overhauled and is laid out, browser style, with four boxes at the top left of the screen: Home, Print, Bookmark, History and Stop (search), and a query box at top right into which the user enters words or, in the case of a "wild card" search, parts of a word and the wildcards "*" or "?". This quick-search box will return main dictionary entries and compound words or phrases. Entering "truth", for instance, will yield the headword definition and phrases such as "in truth", "of a truth" and "tell the truth".

The full-text search box is an exceptionally powerful tool and by applying a series of filters - quotation, date, author, text - the user can pinpoint specific entries. Words can be further listed by entry (alphabetical order) or date (chronology). Etymology, pronunciation and variant spelling options are also available. Proximity searches will scan the dictionary for linked words. "Back" and "scratch" threw up "acnestis: that part of the back between the shoulder-blade and the loins which an animal cannot reach to scratch".

If content really is king, then the OED has an unchallenged and secure lineage, though there are times when the definitions supplied are more of a confusion than a clarification. ("Phimosis: contraction of the orifice of the prepuce so that it cannot be retracted". Any the wiser?) But good textual content does not necessarily translate into stimulating or even effective multimedia. The new interface - touted as the main reason for this revised edition - is an improvement on the 1992 CD but falls woefully short of the standards set by electronic publishers such as Dorling Kindersley, Microsoft and World BookIBM.

For example, having typed a word into the query box of the OED, users cannot just hit the Enter button on their keyboard to initiate the search. They then have to place the mouse cursor over the on-screen Show button and click. And astonishingly, having pinned its software colours exclusively to the Windows mast, there is no link to Word. If you cut and paste a definition from the OED into Word it will be incorporated into your document as the proprietary OED font, Plantin OUP, which resists all attempts at reformatting and can corrupt your entire file.

Oxford University Press is presently overhauling the OED at an estimated cost of more than pound;30 million. One can only hope that when the project is completed the dictionary will have the electronic interface it deserves. "To make a dictionary," Doctor Johnson once lamented, "is dull work" - maybe, but to use one should be an unfailing pleasure.

What would the good Doctor have made of Encarta with its maps, illustrations, sound files and images? The Encarta World English Dictionary, prepared by British publisher Bloomsbury, is claimed to be "the first newly written dictionary in 20 years" and, although released simultaneously in print, is manifestly a child of the multimedia age. The single CD-Rom contains the dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, the Encarta book of quotations and Harrap's Concise French and German dictionaries. While lacking the breadth, depth and obvious authority of the OED, it does have palpable advantages to recommend it.

Headword definitions are simple but accurate. Remember phimosis? Encarta says: "abnormal narrowing of opening in foreskin: an abnormal narrowing of the opening in the foreskin to the extent that it cannot be drawn back over the penis". And while we may not find the previously mentioned acnestis, Encarta is strong on words that have recently entered the language. In the pre-1989 world of the OED you might be sending emails but they won't be travelling across the "Internet", or "intranet" or "extranet", you won't have heard of "hip-hop' and you certainly won't have explored "cyberspace" at a "cybercafe".

Encarta is not without its faults. A dictionary that prides itself on topicality should do better than: "geezer: an offensive term for a man past middle age". Modern usage would be inclined towards the positive rather than pejorative flavour of the word. Overall the editorial position taken by Bloomsbury is commendably anti-racist and anti-sexist, but fulminations against such taboo words as nigger and queer sometimes fail to stress the reclamation of these terms.

Quibbles aside, the dictionary is a delight to use, thanks largely to its well-engineered software and a high level of integration with the Windows environment. Yet the real strength of Encarta is multimedia. The written word may be appropriate for abstract concepts such as love, truth or honour but the sensate world is best understood through the senses. How better to explain chord modulation, dissonance, syncopation or resolution than by sound? Or accurately describe a parabola, corona, parallelogram, cylinder or cube other than visually? Doctor Johnson would have had no doubt: "I am not yet so lost in lexicography" he wrote, "to forget thatI language is only the instrument of science and words are but the signs of ideas".

Make no mistake though, the Encarta dictionary might just represent the future of lexicography. One day we could be looking back at this first edition, its enthusiasms, innovations and imperfections with fondness, respect and not a little sense of history.

Oxford English Dictionary on CD-Rom Version 2.0. 2 CD-RomsPrice: pound;293 inc VATEncarta World English Dictionary (also available as part of Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe). CD-RomPrice: pound;30 inc VATOnline - is the home page of the Oxford English Dictionary with hypertext links to What's New, Word of the Day and About OEDwww.clever.netquinionwords - independent site dedicated to the English language - "its history, quirks, curiosities and evolution"Email - will, should you desire, email you a word a day for your edification!Print resourcesThe Oxford Reverse Dictionary Price: pound;10 inc. VATThe Surgeon of Crowthorne Account of the tragic life of Dr William Minor, valued contributor to the first OEDPrice: pound;7 inc VATNext month the OED is due to go online. This edition will include all the revisions and new entries not found on the CD-Rom. John Simpson the chief editor has said that it will incorporate: "at least 1,000 new and revised entries every quarter". No prices yet available.

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