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A new competitor in the college dictionary market
on May 1, 2002
Americans, and college students in particular, are spoiled for choice in the matter of dictionaries. There are five good college dictionaries and you won't go wrong buying any of them, so the remarks here are addressed to why the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary might be the one for you. It is the newest of all the college dictionaries. This is both a strength and a weakness. The more mature dictionaries have had the opportunity of going through multiple editions, correcting small errors and inconsistencies that have been caught by careful readers at each stage. This has not happened yet with Encarta, as other reviewers have noted. On the other hand, Encarta has many up-to-date technical and scientific terms that have not appeared in the other dictionaries yet, and it is the strongest contender by far for inclusion of computer-related terminology and acronyms, an area of vocabulary that sends many readers to the dictionary these days. Encarta is also particularly good at including compounds with specific denotation that are not transparent to the general reader: neurolinguistic programming, intermediate bulk container, sieve tube element, to name a few.
The essay in the front of the dictionary, "Usage in Crisis?" sets out the rationale for the inclusion many of the dictionary's special features. It's two pages long and worth reading to determine if you're in the class of people that is better served by this dictionary than its competitors. If you're a college student who has difficulty spelling or who struggles with the distinction between its and it's, or their, there, and they're, this is the book for you.
This dictionary has considerably more British bias than any of the other college dictionaries. Subtle British bias leaks through in both the headword list and in definition language. For example, the dictionary includes the fairly obscure, and not difficult to understand British vulgarism f...wit," yet does not have an entry for the far more common, and less transparent American slang term "dirtball." The definition at "tag wrestling" notes that competitors "take it in turns . . ." The American idiom is simply "take turns" and would have sufficed here. The flipside and upside of this bias is that you'll find better coverage in this dictionary of British English than the other college dictionaries provide.
For those who enjoy lingering over pages in the dictionary, this one is far easier on the eyes than most. The distinct typeface of the headwords easily sets them off from the definition text. The quick definitions in long entries are a useful way of navigating through them while looking for a particular sense. As a completely new dictionary, the Encarta is not encumbered by a tradition of style and presentation format that was developed long before the information age. Its fresh start in terms of presentation and inclusion support its claim to be the first dictionary of the Internet age.