Lexicons Wage War of Words by Books: Publishers Pursue Definitive Glossary

By Harper, Jennifer | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 9, 1999 | Go to article overview

Lexicons Wage War of Words by Books: Publishers Pursue Definitive Glossary


Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


War III is under way, and it is a wordy war indeed.

Competing English-language dictionaries are vying for the prestige and profits afforded those thumb-indexed volumes that win a spot on the shelves and in the hearts of wordsmiths everywhere.

And they are everywhere. English is spoken, as well as read, the world over. Each person has his or her own etymological needs.

There are plenty of dictionaries to go around, though.

The cyberspace bookseller Amazon.com lists 75 "best-selling" English dictionaries. This does not include specialty dictionaries offering slang, idioms, cliches, swear words, cooking terms, cyberspeak, street talk and techno-blab, among other things.

There is intense rivalry among the big guns, those burgeoning books big enough to be a doorstop and authoritative enough to silence the most erudite of academics.

The dictionary wars, in fact, were chronicled on the front page of the New York Times last month. The contenders are many.

There's the new 2,208-page Encarta dictionary, which has the financial backing of Microsoft and claims to be both "a publishing event" and the "image of English at the turn of the millennium," complete with a snappy photo of billionaire CEO Bill Gates right there on page 738.

A cast of thousands - well, hundreds, anyway - put Encarta together.

St. Martin's Press hired 250 lexicographers in 10 countries to compile the 400,000 entries, which includes such phrases as "dead cat bounce," a succinct bit of Wall Street slang with a verbose definition.

It is "an apparent recovery from a major decline in stock market prices," Encarta advises, "resulting from speculators rebuying stock that they previously sold rather than from a genuine upturn in the market."

Not to be outdone, the world's most complex dictionary is ready to rumble.

The Oxford English Dictionary - which already takes up 20 volumes - is going to get even bigger.

John Simpson, OED's editor in chief, recently invited the public to contribute entries via the Internet to create "a record of the English language like no other."

"There is no longer one English - there are many Englishes. Words are flooding into the language from all corners of the world," said Mr. Simpson enthusiastically. "Only a dictionary the size of the Oxford English Dictionary can adequately capture the true richness of the English language throughout its history. …

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