11 August 2001

Don’t look up in anger

Encarta Concise English Dictionary, eds Kathy Rooney et al

In the preface to his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson painted an arresting image of the lexicographer’s nightmare:

While our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained ina dictionary than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water.

Every dictionary since then has acknowledged, however surlily, the project’s impossibility: a snapshot of meanings at one historical moment must necessarily fail to account for the metamorphoses that a living language undergoes. This difficulty is exacerbated the more up-to-the-minute a dictionary attempts to be, and the new Encarta Concise attempts to be very modern indeed.

Encarta claims that it is bigger than any other concise dictionary, the better to embrace 5,000 funky new words. This is true, but only by a trick of nomenclature, for in physical bulk it is comparable to the full-sized Collins English Dictionary rather than the concise version. Visually it is rather clearer, with a condensed sans-serif bold font for headwords and indented definitions in a pleasingly lightweight roman. The decision to divide each page into three columns, rather than the normal two, however, sacrifices ergonomics to readability: the innermost columns are hard to see in their entirety when the book is nestling in the hands. It is inevitably more deskbound than other “concise” reference works.

Two of the dictionary’s trumpeted new features relate to spelling, which we are assured in stentorian manner is becoming ever worse in the age of text messaging and word processors. Firstly, the dictionary sprinkles its listings with incorrect spellings of words, crossed out in light grey, with a cross reference to the correct spelling, so that the orthographically challenged will not despair of finding their quarry simply because they don’t know how it is normally written. If you are inclined to write “aquire”, “managment” or “prefered”, Encarta will put you right; if you are tempted to write “heighth” for “height”, you will be told not to (although you will not be informed, as you are by Johnson, that Milton used “highth” because it’s a more logical derivation from “high”).

Secondly, there is the “spellcheck” feature, in which the user of computerised spell-checking routines is warned against using homonyms with different meanings. Discrete is not the same as discreet; cache is not the same as cash. “Beware,” warns the dictionary melodramatically each time, “your spellchecker will not catch this error.” It remains to be explained, however, why anyone who relies on spellcheck software will be consulting a bound paper dictionary in the first place. It is almost as though the dictionary is admitting to its own obsolescence.

Encarta, as is predictable from a trade-name of the Microsoft corporation, also includes many new definitions from computing, such as “cyberwar”, “ego surfing” (the practice of searching for your own name on the internet), “script kiddie” or “viral marketing”. Such entries are marked by a lightning-bolt graphic. It is hard to be sure why, when medical entries (“biomagnetics”, “designer baby”) are not flagged by an ideogram of a scalpel, nor examples from advertising and PR (“adspend”, “forward visibility”, “rebadge”) by a diagrammatic liar. It remains to be seen, of course, how much of this new-fangled e-terminology will turn out to be, in Johnson’s phrase, the kind of “fugitive cant” which “cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language”. Encarta, for one, appears to have been more trigger-happy than conservative in its policy of inclusion.

One entry that stands out as particularly bogus, for example, is “shopping experience”, apparently an e-commerce term for “the virtual environment in which a buyer browses a retailer’s website”. But the meaning of the phrase can be fully understood with the knowledge of the respective meanings of “shopping” and “experience”: “shopping experience” is not a lexically novel compound term in itself, and does not belong in a dictionary. Encarta also delights in recording electronic abbreviations such as W8ING, AFAIK, IIRC or CUL8R, although it fails to distinguish which are common in email usage and which in mobile-phone text messaging. At least we can be happy for the dictionary’s imprimatur on “texting” as the name for the latter activity: a pretty “functional shift” (qv) that Dr Johnson doubtless would have grumbled at.

A dictionary that tries hard to be ultramodern, however, is always at risk of seeming like a fusty old uncle trying to get down with the kids. As soon as the text-happy youth find their vocab indulged by lexicographers, they will surely move on to more obscure and confusing terminology, the better to confuse and alienate adults. There is a certain archness of tone, too, in some of Encarta‘s new definitions. A “boy band”, for example, is “a pop group made of personable young men who sing and dance to synthesized music but do not play instruments”, which sounds exactly like a pipe-smoking old man informing his niece that her cacophonous new CD has a good beat. (Funnily enough, the entry for “girl band” is identical, with the exception that the personable young women involved do not usually play instruments. Are girl bands more likely to include actual musicians? Or are bands comprised of women more likely to be referred to by sexist hacks as “girl bands”, even if they write and play all their music? Gary Barlow of Take That played piano — at least, if you count Elton John-style chordic fisting as piano-playing — and Atomic Kitten certainly don’t play a note of anything. On these mysteries, Encarta keeps its counsel inscrutably.)

In its quest for new features, Encarta has also invented the “literary link”. (Rather deceptive terminology for a printed volume that doesn’t actually allow hypertext-style linking, but never mind.) The literary link is supposed to provide a “stepping-stone from a particular use of a word to its wider cultural context”. The results are somewhat less illuminating. When we have learned what a crucible is, for example, we are given a sixth-former’s precis of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which signally refuses to explore the resonance of the title. The reader will not have too much trouble guessing what literary links follow the definitions of “ado”, “mockingbird” and “wasteland”. In no case is there any actual discussion of why the word in question appears in the literary example, and in some cases the link is actually misleading. For “comedy” we are pointed to The Divine Comedy, as if it were primarily a poem of belly laughs written by a medieval Italian jester.

The net effect of all this ingratiating, Blairite inclusiveness — Encarta‘s attempt to cover literature as well as orthography; its tables, maps and illustrations; its potted biographies of important people such as, er, “US business executive” Bill Gates; its “Quick Facts” about quantum theory or the Renaissance; its ambition to be, in fact, not just a boring old dictionary but a mini-encyclopaedia — is, unfortunately, to inspire a certain distrust in the user. This is not helped by its capacity for imprecision. Sometimes, the definitions simply forget which part of a sentence is supposed to do what. “Clear out”, we are told, for example, can mean “remove”. I see. So if I “clear out” the attic, I actually “remove” the attic from my house, brick by brick, and place it somewhere else? Get away. A larger and more worrying problem is that, very often, the metaphoric use of a word is given first, owing to an insanely over-determined editorial policy of reflecting common usage over delineating how that usage came to exist. To say of “momentum” that it primarily means “capacity for progressive development”, as in a business plan or suchlike, is just barbarous.

All this is not to say that Encarta does not have its strengths. Perhaps most useful are the excellent notes on grammar and usage. Solecisms of the type that regularly annoy this newspaper’s Reader’s Editor are explained in no uncertain terms below the troublesome words (disinterested, complementary, militate and so on). And the vast majority of contemporary writers, who cannot distinguish between a colon and a semicolon and just use the latter indiscriminately, will find the difference admirably explained herein, should they care to look.

The melancholy fact, however, is that they won’t: the colon is a tool growing ever more rusty and obsolete with disuse. The compilers of Encarta seem most old-fashioned, indeed, when they insist on correct usage, like an army of ink-stained Canutes attempting to turn back a sea of careless talk. Such is the tragic impotence of dictionaries. As Johnson said:

May the lexicographer be derided who . . . shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.