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Bill Gates wants to take over the word

ONE ASSUMES Microsoft's new dictionary of world English, the first entirely new English dictionary to be produced for some 30 years, will contain a definition for the phrase "killer app".

After all, Bill Gates's fortune rests on his recognition that such a thing - a software application that buyers had to have - was indispensable in transforming a hobbyists' toy into a global industry. Since then Microsoft has proved remarkably adept in producing "killer apps" and in adding a fratricidal spin to the simple enthusiasm of the geeks' coinage.

Microsoft's "killer apps" have often risen to prominence over the slaughtered bodies of rival products. So it was understandable, when it was revealed that it was to enter the genteel world of lexicography, that some reporters were anxious for the established fauna; the writing was now on the screen, they suggested, for established publishers such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's.

I doubt it myself (even though it would be no bad thing if the OED were terrorised into lowering the price for its dictionary on CD-Rom) - Microsoft scholarship bears about the same relation to the real thing as an inflatable paddling pool does to Lake Windermere, as anyone who has tried to immerse themselves in the shallows of the Encarta Encyclopedia will have discovered. But it is possible the writing is on the screen for the very regional variations that the dictionary - which will appear as a book and as a CD-Rom - sets out to record, since the Internet and computers are the most powerful factors in the creation of a homogenised "world English". What preserves local peculiarities of speech are isolation and distance, the features of the linguistic landscape eroded every day by the growing webs of electronic communication.

Microsoft is likely to make some of this language itself - Bill Gates's new book, Business @ The Speed of Light, concludes with a glossary of terms that may well have greater currency in the next century than they do now, including "bandwidth", to describe a person's intellectual capabilities and "data-mining", to describe the new skill of interpreting raw information for profit. But it will never own the language.

Conspiracy theorists may see this as an attempt to corner the market in utterance, even to advance a particular revolutionary view of the world.

They needn't worry. Mr Gates will find that, like the World Wide Web itself, spoken English has a way of reshaping itself around any attempt to control or fix it.