Hands on

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Do you know what "puckeroo" means? Nor did Jack Kenny until he fed a copy of the Encarta World English Dictionary into his disk drive

In our information age, being a native speaker of English is a passport for communication throughout the globe. And there is no better example of this than the Encarta World English Dictionary.

The premise of the dictionary, available in book and CD-Rom formats and jointly produced by Bloomsbury and Microsoft, is an idea so incisive it is hard to believe no one has done it yet. Rather than seek to define English as the language of one country, Bloomsbury briefed 320 lexicographers from across the world to define English as they use it, so giving the language a wide cultural perspective.

Some jaundiced commentators may see this as another sign of creeping global Americanisation (in the form of Microsoft). They would be wrong. The dictionary hails from Soho Square, London, and although Nigel Newton, Bloomsbury chief executive, was born in the US, chief lexicographer Dr Kathy Rooney is as English as Elgar. The duo came up with the idea of defining global English and asked Microsoft to produce it.

The result is a unique project: the first new (rather than updated) English dictionary in 20 years; the first designed for paper and disk; and the first prepared by a global team working via the Internet. As Newton is keen to point out: "There are many brilliant dictionaries already, but none have been conceived with the specific goal of defining the global language of world English."

The 2,200-page, single-volume book is a handsome product that lists over 100,000 headwords. And its system of phonetic pronunciation, so important in a dictionary to be used by many countries, is excellent.

Newton insists it is quicker to consult the book than the CD-Rom (he says he has timings to prove it) but you would have to be very fast. And not only is the disk speedy, it is a splendid writing tool. Alongside the dictionary, it boasts a comprehensive collection of quotations, Roget's Thesaurus and an English-to-German and English-to-French dictionary. More impressive is its seamless integration with other applications - with a mouse click you can find a definition, synonym or translation while working in Word or even on a web page. Such integral use is the dictionary's strength and ensures its status as an essential piece of software.

Another selling point is its content, which shows all the riches of our language: it has words as beautiful as "tabanca" (origin Caribbean, "a state of sadness resulting from unrequited or lost love"); racy words like "puckeroo" (origin New Zealand, informal, "broken, destroyed, not working"); or words as shiny as "bazodee" (origin Caribbean, "unable to think clearly"). Wonder what "The Big Easy" refers to and you find it defined as "the informal name for New Orleans". Puzzled by "hypertext"? It's "a system of story, images, text and other computer files that allows direct links to related text, images, sound and other data". Find those in most dictionaries.

No academy approves these additions to our language. Mongrel and eclectic, global English steals words and phrases from other sources with the joie de vivre of a shop-lifter on speed. So how will the dictionary stay up to date? Newton says the lexicographical team is constantly refreshing its vast databases and promises each reprint will incorporate the latest editions; it will be easier still to bring the disk up to date.

Microsoft and Blooms-bury hope to put a copy of the dictionary on every desk and in every home. And as the first to accommodate the dynamics of language in the information age, it's hard to see what will stop them.

Encarta World English Dictionary pound;30 (book), pound;29.99 (CD-Rom), or as part of Microsoft's Encarta 2000 Reference Suite (pound;99)

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