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Last Word in Words: Dictionary Diversity : Publishing: Webster has taken a back page to a growing field of specialty reference books. But some are so technical it takes a pro to decipher them.


A month away from his Ph.D. in mathematics at UCLA, Emil Volcheck has never used a dictionary.

A mathematics dictionary, that is.

In fact, Volcheck questioned whether they exist, which might dismay the authors and publishers of nine such books still in print.

"I don't know anyone who uses them," Volcheck says. "Math is so specialized. What would be the point of doing a dictionary? Because you would have to do a dictionary for your sub-sub-specialty, and there are just too many of them."

But that's exactly what many publishers have done in the past few decades: create dictionary upon dictionary of specialties and sub-specialties within highly technical fields. While numbers of these books are difficult to ferret from general dictionary lists, a reference librarian at UCLA's Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Library estimates her library has more than 600 such books.

"Books in Print," which lists all books available in the United States, includes more than 800 such titles. Editors there say that number has increased by about 20% in the last five years.

The first English dictionary was published in 1604, according to Louis T. Milic, an English professor at Cleveland State University. Within the last 30 or so years, however, lexicographers say, an increasingly complex, specialized, and international society has forced changes in how we catalogue words. For many people, a Webster's is simply no longer adequate; their professions or interests require more.

"In the last 50 years, there has been a growing specialization," says Sidney Landau, a dictionary editor, lexicographer and the editorial director of Cambridge University Press, North American Branch. "But you need to distinguish between these specialized dictionaries on the professional level, for people working in the field and for which there is a great need, and those on the popular level, which are really scattershot approaches generally and are very difficult to do given the market."

Jargon, which was relegated to glossaries in the margins or backs of books, is now called technical lexicon and compiled in English and multilingual dictionaries. Biologists, engineers, linguists, agriculturalists, economists, painters, printers and just about every other profession have developed their own languages to describe what they do.

"Dictionaries used to be special forms of the language, like a Scottish Dictionary or a Welsh Dictionary," says Milic, who is also the secretary-treasurer of the Dictionary Society of North America. "But we didn't used to have moon shots, so we didn't have a moon-shot dictionary--it's called 'The Aeronautics Dictionary.' Now, people in the profession would like to have a dictionary to show other people the importance of their field."

Aggi Raeder, UCLA math and engineering reference librarian, says it comes as no surprise that someone like Volcheck would not have used one of his own field's dictionaries. In spite of the volume of such books her library carries, she says many professionals and scholars don't know they exist.

"They know about Webster's and that's it," Raeder says. "There is a dictionary on every subject you can imagine. The researchers, faculty and staff, if they are in their own specialty, they are quite comfortable with the vocabulary."

But that doesn't diminish their value, Raeder says. When scholars and others work outside their own area of expertise, they check with her. And she checks with a specialty dictionary.

Elsevier, a Dutch publisher and the biggest house for technical dictionaries, offers 140 such books in its current catalogue.

The company's best-selling titles (all of which are multilingual) include those on medicine, printing, and symbols and imagery, says Mary Fugle, director of North American sales and distribution.

Why are those titles so popular?

"Beats me," Fugle says.

"It's a very small portion of what we do in terms of books, but obviously we aren't doing it out of the goodness of our hearts. When I go to a library meeting, people are always thrilled to see the dictionary catalogue."

And that underscores the real function of these tomes. With the best-selling books averaging hundreds of dollars a pop and at best selling but a few thousand copies, technical dictionaries are not professional levelers aimed at helping average people decipher professional terminology.

"Anything we publish is at graduate level or above and very few even at the level," Fugle says. "They are really for the professionals in the field. We don't do stuff for the medical student, we do it for the cardiologist, the practicing physician, the scholar in that field."

Think Landau's three-volume "International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology" will help you unscramble doctorspeak?

Try this: "Splanchnocoele: That part of the embryonic coelom which persists in the adult and gives rise to the definitive pericardial pleural and peritoneal cavities."

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