For many students, there is a certain reluctance that borders on fear and loathing when faced with the prospect of opening and searching through a dictionary. The small type and long lists of definitions can often deter those in search of a word or a proper meaning.
But members of the college crowd are nonetheless in need of some defining help - not only because many of them have grown up reading less than their parents, but also because even their high-tech knowledge has its limits. New words and phrases engendered by advances in science and technology are not included in dictionaries even a few years old.
The Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary attempts to address some of these problems. Anne Soukhanov, the general editor of the dictionary, says that an integral part of the compilation process was "getting into the college classroom to find out student problems." She adds that the authors "created a college dictionary that was an active dictionary ... responsive to the changes in the English Language."
To create the proper tome, the staff had to be responsive to the needs of students and recognize the increasing influence of computers. One feature is a "spellcheck" section that identifies common spelling and usage mistakes. For example, the word "bough" is followed by a warning not to confuse it with "bow," noting that a spellchecker "will not catch this error."
In addition, there are 600 notes on the correct usage of words that can often be mistakenly interchanged with what are sometimes called "false friends." The definition of "sociable" explains the distinction between that word and "social," for example. A special entry entitled "quick facts" gives synopses of complex terms: "Gothic" is a type of architecture that employs "pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses."
An interesting feature of this dictionary is the "literary link," which provides connections between words and books. Ms. Soukhanov says one reason for its inclusion is that "college students are not reading as much as they used to." She says that a new term, "aliteracy," has been coined to describe individuals who gather information from the Internet and television, not from books. She explains that the literary link was created to stimulate student curiosity about books and to "encourage them to go beyond the dictionary and read." Look up the definition of "garden," for instance, and you'll also find information about The Secret Garden, a children's story written in 1911 by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
A different approach is used with technological terms, which are highlighted in this dictionary by a lightning symbol. One of the definitions of "splitter" is "an electronic or other device that divides something into parts." Even the definition of "surf" is updated to include a modern meaning, a "search medium for entertainment."
Besides all of these bells and whistles, the dictionary uses simple bold letters to highlight entry words and important definitions, and larger type than many of its counterparts. It also includes illustrations, a practical description of how to use the dictionary, and traditional pronunciation symbols with each definition.
While the dictionary's features make it useful for today's students - especially those working in more technical fields - it does have limitations. Apparently because the dictionary was designed for individuals with access to computers and the Internet, it does not include any appendices. This is in contrast to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which has information regarding biographical and geographical names, abbreviations, punctuation, and other grammatical guides.
But if it's high-tech talk you're after - words like internesia, script kiddie, vocoder or an acronym like MUD - you'll be fine.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor