A Week in Books: A new front opens in the Dictionary Wars

YOU WILL perhaps not be surprised to learn that Bill Gates has a picture of himself in his own in-house dictionary. This week, Dr Johnson's house off Fleet Street saw the launch of the 2,200-page, 3.5m.-word Encarta World English Dictionary. It costs pounds 30 from Bloomsbury in its printed version, or pounds 29 as a Microsoft CD-ROM. Join the digital age; save a quid. With its myriad verbal and photographic snapshots of people, places and events, Encarta adheres to the quasi-encyclopaedic US definition of a "dictionary" rather than the stricter British one. So Bill gets his paragraph and photograph (with more words than Gladstone or Goya). His arch-rival, Steve Jobs of Apple, fails to appear.

This Bloomsbury-Microsoft double-act pushes the Dictionary Wars of the past few years to a new peak of frenzy. Oxford, Collins, Chambers and now Encarta are competing noisily for the cash of the 750m people who speak English as a native or a second tongue, and for an extra billion- odd learners.

So the stakes are high; the potential profits huge. And lexicographical hype now forms a distinct genre of its own. First, you brag about your dictionary's truly global reach and freedom from fuddy-duddy British-English prejudices. (Encarta has 320 editors scattered around the Anglophone planet.) You shout about your proud cultural relativism but at the same time trash your rivals for their reactionary attitudes. (Encarta ticks off Oxford for its alleged leniency towards taboo terms such as "nigger", although the millions of English learners who listen to rap will know that the story doesn't end there.) Most embarrassingly, you crow over the various - probably ephemeral - vogue phrases which you include but competitors do not. (Encarta claims the freehold on "air rage", "no worries" and "genetically modified".) Indeed, lexicographers rank with CofE vicars in their sad desperation to sound, er, well wicked for the yoof.

Behind all this puffery, Encarta does look a pretty impressive - and keenly priced - product. Readers will fear that a Microsoft-led venture may treat the qualifier in "World English" much as in "World Series"; ie, American or, as Spanish puts it, estadounidense - UnitedStatesish. This proves truer of its pop-cultural and political gobbets than of the more balanced, and broadly-sourced, word definitions. Even here, though, the choice of entries looks as weirdly erratic as such things always do. Clark Gable in; Cary Grant out - now that's dumbing down.

Personality problems aside, Encarta more than matches its main rivals for clarity of definition, ease of use and cultural scope. Its little essays on local idioms (Caribbean, Estuary, etc) proved a delight. The encyclopaedic slant, which purists will detest, ensures happy hours of browsing. In short, it ought to give sleepless nights to the head honchos ("From Japanese hancho, 'group leader'") over at Oxford and Collins. And not once did the final item loom: "zzz: a representation of the sound made by sb sleeping or snoring..."

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