S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 October 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
Microsoft Words 1.0

 

[It's amazing what it takes to open your eyes sometimes]

Like distant conflicts involving

obscure poor people who still

kill each other with land mines,

machine guns, and other weapons

that seem unlikely to annihilate

anybody we know, the dictionary

wars persist in a haze of barely

perceived irrelevance.

Never-ending, remote, turning on

the most arcane points of faith

and tradition: Who cares? In

1830, Joseph Worcester started

the whole thing by betraying his

former boss Noah Webster and

introducing the Dictionary of

the English Language. Webster,

who'd published An American

Dictionary of the English

Language just two years earlier,

cried "plagiarism," and for the

next two and a half decades the

quarrel between the two men and

their respective adherents

persisted. Along with the charge

of plagiarism, an element of

patriotism informed the

skirmish. While Webster favored

native etymologies and spellings

over the mother tongue,

Worcester looked toward England

for guidance.

 

Alas, that charged schism

devolved into the kind of

desultory attack-marketing

campaigns we have today.

Whenever a major dictionary

publisher unveils a new edition,

its enemies fire shots about its

scandalous permissiveness

regarding use of words like

"ain't" or "hopefully," a few

dutiful journalists document

whatever lexicographical bloodshed

results, and the public mostly

fails to notice. So it went this

summer as a new warrior entered

the fray. Within days of the

debut of Microsoft's Encarta

World English Dictionary, which

it produced in partnership with

Bloomsbury Publishing and St.

Martin's Press, the dictionary

industry's more established

drudges began sniping. And while

most of their complaints

involved trivial matters like

misidentified Civil War generals

or the fact that the EWED uses a

photo of goatee-laggard Tom

Hanks to illustrate the

particulars of that early-'90s

facial-hair trend, some

criticisms did hit the mark. For

example, while it's one thing to

give Madonna (the singer) top

billing over Madonna (the mother

of Christ), how do the editors

of the EWED explain their

decision to include a photograph

of Bill Gates but not one of

God? And how come the EWED's

definition of "suck" makes no

mention of this publication when

its definition of "slate" —

"a fine-grained metamorphic rock

that splits easily into layers

and is widely used as roofing

material" — is such a thinly

veiled advertisement for its own

in-house webzine? Finally, can

you really trust the verbal

authority of a work that touts

its "3,500,000 words of text" on

its back cover? Are there other

dictionaries out there whose

words are made of, say, hummus?

 

[Live your life like the hen who baked the bread]

In the end, however, all of these

questions distract from a

greater mystery, with the big

question behind this mystery

being: Why? Why is one of the

world's most powerful companies

trifling with a tool of

overconscientious schoolchildren

and minimum-wage-

earning immigrant strivers?

At US$50, the EWED is

priced between unabridged

dictionaries like the Webster's

Third New International

Dictionary ($119) and college

dictionaries like the American

Heritage College Dictionary

($24), but in terms of size, the

EWED, with "over 100,000

headwords including biographical

and geographical entries" falls

in with the latter camp, at

best. (Webster's Third New

International has nearly half a

million entries; the American

Heritage College Dictionary has

over 200,000 entries.)

 

Charging more for less is a savvy

business maneuver on Microsoft's

part, but there's one part of

the equation that will be harder

to change: Although Americans

are more likely to own a

dictionary than any other kind

of book, they tend to keep that

dictionary around for years after

the house copy of Airframe

has been composted; the purchase-

to-obsolescence lag time

can exceed that of the family dog,

if not the children. And thus, while

college dictionaries comprise

the most popular segment of the

overall dictionary market, the

American public purchases only

about 2 million of them a year

according to recent estimates.

Industry leader Merriam-Webster

accounts for about half of that

total, and three other

well-established publishers

fight over the rest.

 

Why has Microsoft suddenly

decided it wants a piece of this

relatively modest pie? The

ostensible reason is that it

senses a larger opportunity, a

potential boom in the planet's

English dictionary requirements

as English emerges as the

default language of the

Internet. And because the EWED

is not just a dictionary of

American English or English

English, but rather, a

dictionary of "world English,"

with words (made of text!) that

come from 20 different

English-speaking countries, it

is particularly well-suited to

meet the needs of people who

don't always mean the same thing

when they use the same word.

This, at least, is what the

Microsoft PR factory (or as the

residents of New Zealand might

put it, the Microsoft PR

factory) would have you believe.

 

[Oh, Rats!]

In any case, the EWED is an

undeniably innovative work. And

we're not talking about the

CD-ROM version either; we mean

the 7-pound, 2,078-page print

version. For starters, it boldly

breaks with industry tradition

and features a photo

illustration on the cover: a

stirring shot of the Earth being

struck by a large meteor, which,

if we're not mistaken, comes

from Corel's 1993 classic CD-ROM

of royalty-free digital images,

Planetary Destruction Basics

(Volume II). The EWED also

features more white space than

typical dictionaries, larger

type, and a time-saving

breakthrough called "quick

definitions." These bold,

all-cap summaries help you find

the exact meaning you're looking

for when a word has multiple

meanings. For example, "with

rocks," one of the quick

definitions for the word

"rocky," leads you to the more

thorough explanation,

"consisting of or covered with

rocks."

 

In other words, Microsoft has

given the world the first

Dictionary for Dummies, and

semiliterate word fans love its

unprecedented

user-friendliness. "Ground

breaking," writes one reader

from Joliet, Illinois, on

Amazon.com. "This book is right

in line with the times, i hated

to old school dictionaries, but

this dictionary has

'personality' as well as an

unending void of well diversed

information..a must for any

family or school library."

 

[just want a good pop song]

Although the EWED's innovations

have led to a strong showing on

the Amazon Hardcover Reference

Bestsellers list, where it

currently ranks as the fifth

most popular English dictionary,

we still can't help but wonder

if sales are really the point

here, or if, in fact, the EWED

is actually some kind of

semi-clandestine test case, a

small part of a larger,

unexpected, undeniably momentous

shift in Microsoft's vision.

 

At first glance, it's true that

the EWED may seem little more

than a lexicographical

manifestation of traditional

Microsoft "embrace and extend"

tactics, wherein the company

adopts a popular open standard,

achieves industry-leader status

through marketing and

distribution, then

"decommoditizes" the standard

with extensions that ultimately

give it a proprietary advantage.

But would even Microsoft have

the hubris to pull off such a

stunt with the English language?

After all, as open standards go,

English is an extremely open

one. Hundreds of millions of

people around the world use and

modify it on a daily basis, and

the EWED itself is founded on

the notion that new additions to

the "code base" arise not just

from England or the United

States, but rather from

English-speaking countries

everywhere — Belize,

Australia, the Republic of

Cuervo Gold, even Canada.

 

Now obviously the EWED isn't

quite ready for Open Source

Initiative certification yet, as

the dictionary's standard

copyright notice makes clear.

But Microsoft has been

strategizing for some time now

about how best to apply the

power of open source to its own

development efforts — and if

the company is really going to

experiment with a model so

antithetical to its traditional

business practices, isn't it

likely that it would conduct a

non-critical test case first?

 

As such a test case, the EWED

actually works quite well.

Indeed, in the same way that

Linux creator Linus Torvalds

created the kernel of a new

operating system but left plenty

for "enthusiast developers" to

work on too, the editors of the

EWED have created a core

dictionary that nonetheless

remains much less comprehensive

than unabridged dictionaries

like the Webster's Third New

International Dictionary or the

Oxford English Dictionary. In

other words, there would still

be abundant opportunities for

"enthusiast lexicographers" to

contribute to the EWED should

Microsoft allow them to do so.

 

As it happens, the Oxford

University Press is already

moving in this direction. On the

same day that Microsoft

announced the imminent arrival

of the EWED this past summer,

OUP announced that it was

asking enthusiast lexicographers

to contribute to its $55 million

revision of the Oxford English

Dictionary: Those who think

they've coined or discovered a

word that should be included in

the OED's version can submit it

to the dictionary's editors.

 

Will Microsoft meet this

challenge by, say, posting the EWED to

OpenContent.org, where anyone

could make modifications to its

source without editorial

approval and then distribute

their derived works at will? And

if this project — which

could very well result in an

EWED packed with far more

erroneous facts, obscure slang

words, and random celebrity

photos than the editors could

ever compile themselves — is

successful, will the erstwhile

monopolists then apply this new

approach to Windows 2000, thus

coopting the open-source

movement altogether and ensuring

the primacy of its operating

systems forever and ever? Once

again, after 150 years of

increasing irrelevance, the

dictionary wars are

meaningful....

 
courtesy of St. Huck