Books: Mother would like a word

John Morrish road-tests the new finger-wagging `Encarta' dictionary
There have been "dictionary wars" in the past, but the current bout must be the most phoney yet. The first "war", between American dictionary pioneers Noam Webster and Joseph Worcester, occupied 25 gruelling years in the middle of the 19th century. The second, between the editor of Webster's Third International Dictionary and a mob of critics and angry readers, took up more newspaper space in 1961 than the beginnings of the Vietnam war.

Both were bitter conflicts involving large sections of the literate population of the US. Our "dictionary wars", on the other hand, are ritual. Every year the publishers wheel out their latest heavy ordnance, and an exchange of fire takes place. We're more up-to-date than you: you're offensive to minorities. We have a bigger computer: you don't include so many words.

As publishing in Britain has become more commercial, so the skirmishings have intensified. New dictionaries are promoted essentially as lists of wacky new words, guaranteed to appear in the newspapers, no matter how silly, useless or suspect.

But for every "digizine", "gym rat" or "webisode", some sensible, useful and genuinely difficult word may have been sacrificed. Seasoned sub-editors still wail about the edition of Chambers which removed "jeremiad" in favour of the likes of "muggee" and "boob-tube", neologisms that were dead before the ink was dry.

Since heavyweight dictionaries are often sold shrink-wrapped, like frozen chickens, purchasers have to judge by the blurb or the weight. Bigger must be better, surely? The new player this summer was a real heavyweight, bristling with smart weapons. And the Encarta World English Dictionary, proudly published by Bloomsbury at pounds 30, has Bill Gates on its side.

Bloomsbury insists that the 2,200 page monster is all its own work. Kathy Rooney, editor-in-chief, says that Microsoft only became involved when Bloomsbury sold it the electronic rights to a project it had already conceived. Nonetheless, calling it Encarta - a meaningless but "tony" name invented by an advertising agency - should be worth a fortune.

The existing Encarta CD-ROM Encyclopaedia has sold 2.5 million copies already. Bloomsbury's handsome doorstop will be joined in September by an all-singing, all-earning Microsoft CD-ROM, curiously priced at a penny less. That, in turn, will be incorporated into the Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite, a DVD-ROM destined to be given away with perhaps half the personal computers in the world.

In software, the winner takes all. Microsoft's Office suite does everything competently enough to have destroyed the market for makers of dedicated word processors, databases, spreadsheets and the rest. Bloomsbury's dictionary, by sheer coincidence, takes the same approach.

Aiming their sights squarely at the biggest target, the Oxford University Press, the Bloomsbury team have stopped just short of calling the Oxford dictionaries imperialist, racist, sexist and everything else that's bad. Oxford's empire dates from the days when almost everyone was - by modern standards - all those things. But it is learning quickly. Its "spoiler" last week was to announce that it was taking the war into cyberspace, with the Oxford English Dictionary going on-line next year, including a whole raft of new material about English's history as well as its geography.

As for imperialism, Oxford's editors pointed out that it has always valued regional forms of English. James Murray, original editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was a Scot. Robert Burchfield, editor of the 20th century supplements, was a New Zealander. Oxford produces dictionaries of South African, Australian and New Zealand English, using local sources. Some in the Oxford camp even suggested that perhaps Bloomsbury's "world" English was what the rest of us call "American".

Dr Rooney, who seems almost as familiar with marketing as she is with headwords and lexemes, is not shy about her dictionary's provenance. "We needed a USP to make a new dictionary justify itself," she explains. "You can't just say, `Let's do a dictionary'. You have to have a real rationale."

The big idea was that the dictionary would be compiled simultaneously in British English and American English. Every long-winded process would be done twice. The resultant British and American versions differ by only 10 per cent in words defined but by up to 25 per cent in the supporting text. Some 320 editors around the world were involved. Bloomsbury claims Encarta is the "first dictionary to reflect the diversity of the English language as it is spoken across the globe".

"The discovery that there are a number of Englishes in the world is hardly a new one," counters Michael Quinion, creator of World Wide Words ( words) one of the best word-related sites on the Web, and a contributor to various OUP dictionaries. He points out that written world English is actually fairly standard: the variety comes with spoken Englishes, and a single-volume dictionary can't begin to tackle those.

In truth, Encarta is an American dictionary, in philosophy as much as in lexicon. Jonathon Green, in his fascinating history of lexicography, Chasing The Sun, notes that American dictionaries have always been mass- market products. Apparently 87 per cent of American homes have a dictionary: sometimes it is their only book.

Consequently, it has to be encyclopaedic in scope, including biographical, geographical and historical material. It is prescriptive. It eschews swear-words and obscenities. And it is used: for settling arguments, for playing Scrabble, and for asking "Did you know that `gullible' is not in the dictionary?"

The Encarta World English Dictionary, British edition, follows this pattern, even including an apparently random selection of line-drawings. Bloomsbury admits a debt to the 1979 Collins English Dictionary, the first British dictionary on the American pattern. It is also very like the red vinyl three-volume Readers' Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the 1970s, which had the same implied promise: the only reference book you will ever need. It wasn't.

Encarta also bears a strong visual resemblance to OUP's New Oxford Dictionary of English of 1998. It borrows the running pronunciation guide along the bottom of each spread, although Bloomsbury has invented its own (raather iddi o sing krattik) system to replace phonetics.

Encarta does list taboo words, but handles them with rubber gloves. Here's "shag": "vti. OFFENSIVE TERM an offensive term referring to sexual intercourse (slang taboo) n. OFFENSIVE TERM an act of sexual intercourse (slang offensive)". I think we can conclude that the compilers of Encarta consider "shag" offensive.

Still, it has endless neologisms, non-British English and foreign words. It has new, clear but wordy definitions, which it prints twice, once abbreviated in bold capitals as a "quick definition" and then in normal type. This is a waste of space.

It is strong on science, technology and computers. It even cites web- pages, a dubious step given that many sites have the longevity and inherent worth of a soap-bubble. There is also a picture of Bill Gates in "G", alongside Gandhi, Galileo, President Garfield (who?) and Marvin Gaye.

There are mini-essays on etymology, varieties of English and usage, in which Bloomsbury lays out its PC credentials. These extend even to the definitions: "Bedlam" is defined as "psychiatric hospital (archaic)" which might suggests that sensitivity has over-ridden historical awareness. Encarta is, of course, a product of an age which believes that the right to take offence is sacred. "Sensitivity trap", it warns: "The use of America to mean North America is liable to cause offence to Canadians, and should be avoided." In the case of "nigger", no fewer than 15 of the 25 words of definition are simply there to tell us it is offensive. Then comes an essay, "Racism trap", which explains that "those who persist in using it should remember that their use of the word reflects directly upon them, the users." Good advice, but from your mother, not a dictionary.

In the end, the globalist, anti-imperialist pretensions of the project are barely sustained. The non-British words come across as exotica, stripped of context and included at the expense of useful words from the core vocabulary of world English. Was there ever a more "imperialist" idea than producing a single dictionary of all the world's Englishes, rather than producing dictionaries of those varieties, edited in their home territory? And was there ever a more unlikely anti-imperialist than "William Henry Gates III (b.1955) US entrepreneur"?

In many ways, the Encarta dictionary is a remarkable achievement, compiled from scratch in eight years. The end product is full of information and interest, and even a modest amount of entertainment. But you wouldn't want to rely on it as your only dictionary. Still, they can probably fix that in the upgrade. Roll on Encarta World English Dictionary 2.0.