Lost for words no more;Dictionaries;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Computer-based reference books have some advantages over their paper counterparts. Laurence Alster gives an A to Z of what's on offer

EALL think that dictionaries are necessary and even indispensable, but not that many of us are keen to use them. Most children would sooner tidy their room than look up the meaning of a word, and many adults will trawl the list of excuses to avoid the search.

All this could change now technology has taken the dither out of dictionaries. To begin with, dozens of lexicons can be consulted on the Internet: for example, accessible through RM's Living Library site, the Oxford School Dictionary and the companion Oxford School Thesaurus offer speedy definitions of and synonyms for a wide range of words.

There are dozens more online, many academic, some eccentric. While the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind will satisfy any nagging doubts you might have about multiple realisability and supervenience, the Australian Slang Dictionary demystifies such terms as "mystery bag" (a meat pie) and rugrat (crawling baby). The same source lists some caustic Okker quips, most notably "as useless as a glass door on a dunny" (an outside loo), though not "as happy as a bastard on Father's Day", which is a shame. If you think that last one is just the ticket for a forthcoming fortnight in Provence, the Alta Vista Translation Service will oblige you with "heureux comme batard le jour du pre" or, if the Algarve is your destination, "feliz como um bastardo no dia do pai".

Whatever the language, whatever the subject, there seems to be a Web lexicon for it: movie terms, jazz slang, epithets in Uzbek and so forth. CD-Rom dictionaries can hardly be said to be so wide-ranging, though they are still far broader than those dictionaries built into standard word processing programs. But there is far more to them than range alone.

With many, the text colour and font size can be changed, so say goodbye to packed pages. Information retrieval on all is as good as instantaneous. Simply key in a word and one click brings prompt explanation, while a second on any word in the definition brings an equally quick cross-reference.

Most carry a bookmark which enablers users to go directly to any previously-marked entry. Want to find a word for which you only know a few letters? Easy: key in, say, s**n**ig**, press Enter and the wildcard option takes you straight to shenanigan. Some applications even suggest solutions to anagrams. Quicker by far, let alone cheaper, than phoning those crossword hotlines at 50p per minute.

Useful, too, are filters that allow you to look for two or more words in the same entry (as in square and peg, for instance), or to exclude unwanted terms from a search.

In some cases, double-clicking on a word in a Word 6 document takes you straight to the required dictionary entry. Not, however, with Microsoft Office, a situation that publishers should by now have remedied with supplementary software, but haven't.

Most of these and many more tools are contained in the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, generally recognised as the leader of the lexical pack. But all except the most particular will find the very reasons for its deserved fame, its scope and scholarship, more intimidating than informative. They might go instead to the more manageable but still immensely thorough New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary which, with its voluminous notes on usage and etymology, should suit most people.

The acknowledged big hitters of the dictionary world ("hit" being the designated term for a word successfully found and explained), these two will take virtually everything thrown at them - from, say, the Australian colloquialism "daggy" - defined by The Shorter as a derivative of "dag, a lock of wool clotted with dung about the hind legs of a sheep" ("rattle your dags" means "get a move on") - through to more elevated expressions such as "souffre-douleur, a person who is in a subservient position and must listen to or share another's troubles".

OT, though, Shunamitism, defined in the excellent Chambers Dictionary CD-Rom as "rejuvenation of an old man by means of a young woman" (origin: Abishag the Shunammite in I Kings 1.3, reputedly the first man ever to say "I should be so lucky").

Why the grander dictionaries should omit such a cherishable item is a mystery. Not that this particular entry is the sole attraction of the Chambers. Aside from its scope - it found most test words, both everyday and exotic - it merits special praise for its "sounds like" facility. Enter a rough phonetic version of a difficult word - "diareah" perhaps (for diarrhoea, almost as much of a pain to spell as to have) - and you get 17 possible correct synonyms, most of which can be ruled out straight away and the others checked against the main dictionary. It's exactly the thing for people who say they don't use dictionaries because they can't spell in the first place.

There is one problem with the Chambers. If you have to phone the customer helpline, a polite voice will refer you to a number in I er, Paris. Absurd is just one word to describe this.

There are no such snags with the Collins Electronic English Dictionary amp; Thesaurus. Though not quite as good for range as the Chambers, its display options (colour, font size and so forth) are far superior. And its thesaurus is first-rate: standard word-processing programs offer nowhere near the number of synonyms (antonyms too) for those words tested. An additional plus is the ability to switch between dictionary and thesaurus in a tick, a task that takes forever with books.

So what about pronunciation? All the above stick to the traditional method of denoting the way to articulate the words through phonetic versions. The Concise Oxford Dictionary and the more basic Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary go an important one better: they make the right noises. Click on "synecdoche" in the Concise, therefore, and you will never again blush at having rhymed it with poke. Confused by "cognoscente"? With this, you'll soon sound like one. Tongue-tied over "Sao Tome" and "Principe"?

Not only does the Advanced Learner's provide sound guidance, it also highlights the places of pronunciation on the map. Added to which are line drawings or pictures of many defined objects, as well as crosswords (nearly 900 of them) and other games to test learning. If you get frustrated at not knowing a clue, just key in such star turns as "s**t" and "f**k" and it will curse for you.

Though mute, the Cassell Concise Dictionary has its own special attractions, not least a conventional dictionary alongside the CD-Rom version - to help compare old with new technology, perhaps. New wins easily, even if a somewhat clumsy interface makes this package rather more difficult to use than all but its most advanced equivalents.

Even so, the extras provided still make it a snip in any language: notes that warn of grammatical errors, words specific to certain disciplines (botany, astronomy, architecture and others), plus words and expressions used for particular effect ("bad hair day", listed under "slang", is said to stand for "a day on which one would rather not face the world").

Does this spell the end of the traditional dictionary? Not at all. Generally, it is still easier to open a book than start up a computer, so don't sling that old tome just yet.

When writing to screen, though, a dictionary loaded on to your computer will save oodles of time and effort. You'll soon agree that, lexicographically speaking, these things are for the busy writer just about the last word.

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