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Oxford Dictionary Is Computing Ways to Stay Current

October 26, 1986|CHARLES CAMPBELL | Associated Press

WATERLOO, Canada — Somewhere out there, somebody wants a list of every English word describing a color, along with the quotation showing the first time each word was used in writing.

Someone else, probably a language scholar, wants to know every word coined by Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. And then there's a guy who simply wants to use his home computer to cheat at Scrabble.

To all these people and more: Be patient. In just a few years, a transatlantic alliance expects to have ready a computerized edition of that granddaddy of dictionaries, the 21,000-page Oxford English Dictionary, known to its users as the OED.

"This is a treasure chest," said John Stubbs, a history professor who is one of three co-directors of the University of Waterloo Center for the New OED.

Even in the early stages, Stubbs said, it is becoming clear that the new computer tool will expand vistas in several fields of language and literature.

"There are some real signs of original thought of what can be done with the data," he said.

The original Oxford English Dictionary was published in 12 volumes, beginning in 1884 with the book covering A-Ant. Like other dictionaries, the OED gives definitions, pronunciations and etymology. What makes it special is the 2 million quotations showing each word in context, including the earliest known appearance in print.

As fast as the editors at Oxford University Press could work--with the aid of thousands of volunteer researchers reading through English literature and writing quotations on slips of paper--it took 44 years to complete the dictionary. By then, it was out of date.

It became clear to officials at Oxford University Press that a better way was needed to keep the dictionary current.

The center is being supported mostly by a grant from the Canadian government. It is not being paid for its work on the dictionary but will own the software it develops.

Back in England, IBM has donated hardware for the computer and people to help the staff at the press learn to use it.

As a first step, operators at International Computaprint Corp. in Fort Washington, Pa., are busily typing the dictionary's 350 million characters onto computer discs, along with special codes that identify each part of each entry: part of speech, etymology, quotation, author, definition and so forth.

These codes eventually will be crucial for the special uses of the computerized dictionary.

But first, sometime in 1989, Oxford plans to use the text stored on the computer to publish a new edition, this time with the new words, quotations and meanings from the supplements included in the main body of the dictionary, which could run to 20 volumes.

The first letter typed into computer memory was "M," giving researchers at Waterloo something to begin their experiments with.

"Right now we are primarily doing design work and trying to understand the data," said Gonnet, the computer scientist. In addition, he said, "I've learned a lot of 'M' words."

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