Computers: OED's fantabulous way with words: The Oxford English 'discionary' refreshes parts of the language ordinary dictionaries cannot reach. Robert Winder drinks it in

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The Independent Online
THE first thing I felt when I started playing with the Oxford English Dictionary compact disc drive was that the great encyclopedia of the language has at last attained the form God intended for it: if there has ever been a dictionary as supple and informative as this, someone has been keeping it very quiet.

At last, new technology, in the form of an Apple CD-rom, has brought the entire English vocabulary within easy reach. The original OED came in a heavy-volume version guaranteed to crick wrists. Apple's snazzy software puts it almost literally at your fingertips. With a couple of mouse clicks you can chop, slice and fillet this enormous work in more ways than the early editors could even dream of.

At a stroke, the things that make the dictionary so great and civilised a work are amplified and offered on a plate. It operates immaculately in its most obvious function - as a spacious reservoir of words and definitions. And having it sitting at their elbow will give all word-bores a light-headed feeling of linguistic exhilaration. But it is also an unsurpassable anthology of both literature and history.

The second thing I noticed has nothing to do with dictionaries as such, but plenty to do with the people who use them. Even the briefest relationship with this exciting new system is enough to indicate that there is almost no limit to human laziness.

Human history is littered with technical advances that have outlawed entrenched habits at a stroke. The advent of the remote control bleeper for the television has made the idea of standing up to change channels seem a tiresome chore hardly worth thinking about. By the same token, the terrific intimacy with words provoked by the compact disc version of the OED makes the old-fashioned dictionary technique - walking across to a bookshelf and lifting out a heavy volume - seem like an archaic waste of time and space.

When people start talking about multimedia and the future of the book - on the assumption that computers will somehow be the death of literature - it is tempting merely to yawn and switch channels. It is much more likely that new technology will stimulate the literary arts than suppress them.

Fax and electronic mail technology - anything which requires us to read and write rather than chat and listen - will automatically revive the old letter-writing reflexes. Now that answering machines have successfully become the front-line troops in our war against the intrusiveness of the telephone, we can all switch to screens. It is far more attractive, far more reliable and much more fun to send written messages than to leave spoken ones.

So literature can sleep easy. But reference books are a different matter. They are ripe for automation and the CD-rom is the tool which will reel them into line. So far as the dictionary is concerned, the research possibilities are intriguing, especially for literary critics.

One of the OED's distinctive beauties has always been the brilliance of the quotations. Now, Apple's well-oiled windows open on to individual authors and specific works. You want to pull out all the Jane Austen quotations in the OED? Easy. There are 1,093. Pope? 5,944. Dryden? 9,123. Macaulay? 5,574. George Eliot? 3,147. Dickens? 8,536. Milton? 12,464. Chaucer? 11,901. Joyce? 1,787 - of which 1,412 are from Ulysses. As a side issue, did you know that there were 34 Pratts quoted in the OED?

As with all computer command systems, a certain amount of care is required in this area. I asked the compact disc to show me all the Shakespeare quotations in its memory and it came up with two lines by G J Shakespeare, aeronautical memos about permeability testing - 'at the centre of the lower part a katharometer is fixed'. William Shakespeare, it turns out, exists as 'Shakes' (silly me) and there are 33,303 quotations from his plays and sonnets - scrolling through the entries is a little like leafing through the Complete Works.

Historians can have the same kind of fun. It takes all of 10 seconds - using the 'date filter' - for the compact disc to generate a list of the words that came into the language during the Second World War, and very moving it is too. The screen fills with a long paragraph of words pregnant with the sullen, stoic, bloody-minded good humour of British troops during those unhappy years. It reads almost like a war poem: ack-ack, ball-buster, bish, blitz, boffin, boondock, cockamamie, ear-bashing, frogman, genocide, gobbledygook, Godwottery, gismo, gremlin, infiltrator, inter-war, jeep, knees-up, napalm, paratroops, pistol-whip, pizzeria, prang, radar, showbiz, sprog, stooge, telly, ticketyboo and, of course, deoxyribonucleoprotein.

It might be that researchers have a political motive. Anyone wishing to see what the 1980s brought to the language - anyone, that is, keen to examine the verbal footprints of the Thatcher era - can do so with childish ease. Ah, what days they were: arbitrage, Argie, backlash, brill, camcorder, de- nastification, dongle, foodie, freebase, fuzzword, greenmail, hoolivan, kissogram, microwavable, nicorette, Rambo, spreadsheet, trueish, uncreolised, unsackable, whats-er-face, wimp, wysiwyg, yap, yomp and yuppiedom.

Something odd happens to our consciousness when things that used to be imaginably hard become embarrassingly easy. The gratitude we must feel towards the engineers and scholars who have achieved such a lyrical marriage between electronics and philology is similar to that we owe to Mr Biro, or the inventor of the disposable nappy. No doubt there will be those who will say, as they did of pocket calculators, that in some mundane sense the compact 'discionary' is the death knell for dictionaries as we know them. A half-hour of play- time with this new toy should be enough to persuade them of its virtues.

As a final treat, I could not resist sneaking a look at my year of birth to see if this was an auspicious one in the history of the language. What I found made me feel both humble and proud: this was the year that gave us, among other things, babygro, crimplene, cosmonaut, fantabulous, go-kart, kooky, naff, nutcase, perm, pundit, spandex, washeteria and zonked. What a break to have been born at the same time as words such as these. It makes a chap feel - no other word for it - fantabulous.

OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

System: Apple Macintosh. (Also available for Microsoft Windows 3.1).

Requirements:

Hardware: 68030 processor; CD-rom drive; hard drive; minimum 2 megabytes

of main memory.

Software: System 6.07 and Truetype, or System 7.0.

Publisher: Oxford University Press.

Availability: Software Dealers, can be ordered from bookshops, or ring Janet Caldwell, Electronic Publishing, Oxford University Press, Walton Street, Oxford, on 0865 267979.

Price:

List/Street: pounds 581.62, inc VAT.

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