Dictionaries in word war

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THE QUIET world of the lexicographer is about to be riven by the fiercest competition in years. All three leading publishers of dictionaries, Larousse, HarperCollins and Oxford University Press, are publishing new volumes in an attempt to secure the most lucrative market: the middle- range dictionary.

OUP claims its New Oxford Dictionary of English (pounds 29.99) will be "the most important new dictionary of the language in over 100 years". Unlike Larousse's Chambers Dictionary (pounds 25), and HarperCollins's Collins English Dictionary (pounds 24.99), OUP's will be a new version rather than a reworking of a previous edition. Until now, Oxford had no alternative to its cheap Concise version or its pounds 80 Shorter Oxford.

Rarely has compilation of a new dictionary been shrouded in so much secrecy. OUP refuses to discuss its project. But for the past four years, 30 full- time editors and a team of out-of-house advisers have been working to produce Node, a dictionary which will reflect the constantly changing English language. Its sources range from the usual books, newspapers, magazines and the broadcast media to the British National Corpus. The corpus, funded by several publishers (including OUP), universities and the British Library, has a database containing 100 million words, giving Node the most modern of meanings. Until now, for example, Oxford's primary explanation of "dope" was a varnish applied to the surface of aeroplane parts. In line with actual usage, the Node will more prominently tell readers it means a narcotic.

Node's lexicographers have also analysed the Oxford World Reading Programme database of 40 million words and idioms and the Oxford Historical Corpus. Chambers also draws on the British National Corpus while the Collins English Dictionary relies on the 323 million words in the Bank of English database.

Lexicographers usually work on a four- to five-year cycle for updating English dictionaries. Jean Aitchison, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford, illustrates how language changes via competition. Like a cuckoo fledgling in the nest, a new word or usage might co-exist with older ones; eventually though, it pushes the original inhabitants out.

The lexicographers' skill lies in assessing how useful a new word or meaning will be. They analyse its frequency and the spread of its usage in the database before deciding whether or not to include it in the dictionary. Words or meanings with obvious sell-by dates, such as "squarial", the name given to the short-lived square satellite dishes of the 1980s, are unlikely to be included.