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Thursday, July 29, 1999 Published at 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK


World English dictionary? Puh-leeze...

Microsoft: Dictonary aims to replace all others

Microsoft and a British publishing house are launching what they describe as the first world English dictionary, a work which seeks not only to encompass British or American English, but the way that the language is spoken around the world.

The Encarta World English Dictionary, the first time that Microsoft have given the brand name to a book, has taken three years to compile from the work of 250 lexicographers around the world.

It seeks to bring together the disparate elements of English, from the language of Shakespeare to modern day American street slang.

The book and the CD-Rom to be published in September will draw together the English spoken in 10 different countries by one in five of the world's population.

New words

The dictionary includes 400,000 entries and more than three million words.

[ image:  ]
The editors say what marks it as different to previous dictionaries is that users will be able to look up a word and then delve deeper into the regional significance of that word and those related to it around the world.

Americans have already been told that phrases including "yadda, yadda, yadda" (blah, blah, blah) and "whasup?" (what's up?) have made it to the page.

And British-English speakers may be surprised to learn that while they may expect a spaceman to "zap" them with a laser gun, in Malaysia it refers to photocopying.

Death of the Queen's English?

However, fears that the work may herald the long-predicted demise of the Queen's English may be premature.

[ image:  ]
Experts say that while everyone knows there is different vocabulary in each English speaking country, the complexity of grammar and shades of meaning would be "almost impossible" to contain in one volume.

Karen Stern, Longman Dictionaries' senior American lexicographer, said: "Everyone knows that what is a lift here is an elevator in the States, that a tap is a faucet and so on.

"But there are very subtle differences to take into account as well. In terms of meaning, the same word can have a very different, or maybe only a very tiny, but significant difference in meaning from country to country."


Editors also have to contend with the crossover of vocabulary and grammatical style from one group of English users to another.

[ image:  ]
Rabid consumption of TV shows from both America and Australia mean that the average British-English speaker absorbs alternative English vocabulary.

American grammar and word order, for example, have a habit of sneaking into everyday use in the UK.

The BBC's style gurus check reporters using terms such as "filling out" instead of "filling in" forms, while fans of the American sitcom Friends use "so" to enhance verbs rather than adjectives.

And although the vernacular trade with the States is rather one-sided, the UK's No1 linguistic export is currently the word "shag" - as seen in the latest Austin Powers spoof spy movie.

Ms Stern says usage of the word has followed the popularity of Britpop music and the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral, rather than wildlife documentaries on cormorants.

Dictionary building

The 250 lexicographers across North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean and the UK drew on their own databases and word banks to come up with the most frequently used words, terms and phrases in contemporary English.

[ image: Strine, or Australian slang, is being taken into account]
Strine, or Australian slang, is being taken into account
The publishers say that this worldwide system has ensured that they have covered all the different nuances of many words, for instance, the definition of the word "ignorant" which in the Caribbean means "aggressively quarrelsome" rather than "dumb".

Dictionary building has developed over the past couple of decades into a highly technological art.

There are two approaches - one is the traditional reporting system, where volunteers watch all forms of the written word and alert editors to any new words or language usage.

However, in the late 1970s lexicographers began "hoovering up" great swathes of text including everything from travel brochures to technical manuals, novels and newspapers.

Every single word is stored in a corpus, explained the Oxford English Dictionary's Lew Bernard - the OED's corpus contains 100 million words - and bespoke software is used to highlight frequently used words, new words and patterns of usage.

Of those words, 10% are sourced from spoken language, typically by sending volunteers off to record hours of everyday conversation.

These recordings are analysed and the data stored as part of the corpus of words.

The advent of the internet has provided another great store of words for dictionary builders without even the onerous task of scanning in sheets of text.

Indeed, Microsoft says that without the Internet, the dictionary would have been possible as the lexicographers, none of whom were initially told what they were working on, were linked to each other via the internet.

And the answers are:

Arm candy (USA): A good-looking woman with whom a man does not have a relationship but whom accompanies him to a social event, often for a fee.

Preloved (Australia and New Zealand): Used euphemistically to describe an article for sale which is second hand.

Toenadering (South Africa) The process of getting closer or rapprochement between political parties.

Yancha (HongKong): The social practice of going to a tea house, the equivalent of going to a pub (UK) or bar (USA).

Puh-leeze (USA): Used facetiously to express astonishment, disbelief or indignation.

Gump (USA): To muddle through difficult situations thanks to a series of lucky chances - derived from the 1994 film Forrest Gump.

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