The World English Dictionary that the World Didn’t Need

Orin Hargraves

Twenty years ago, the Society’s journal Dictionaries (No. 21) published a long and detailed review of the Encarta World English Dictionary (EWED) by Sidney Landau: a DSNA fellow, former Society president, and perhaps the most highly respected name in American lexicography for his widely read Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography. In his 13-page review, Sidney takes apart and discards nearly every promotional claim made for the dictionary and then analyzes it carefully in comparison to its market peers, finding it wanting in nearly every respect.

I was one of the “more than 250 lexicographers from 10 countries” (a promotional claim) that worked on EWED over the three or so years when it went from flawed vision to published book. Now, 20 years after the fact, is a good time to reflect on EWED’s stunted career. When it was published, EWED was put forward as “a publishing event that will set the standard for all future dictionaries.” Its publisher (Bloomsbury, a then fairly young UK publisher) and financial backers (Microsoft) envisioned for it an eminent place on the reference bookshelf beside the other respected English dictionaries of the day.

Today, you can buy remaindered copies of EWED (updated only once, in 2004) for less than a fiver and you will probably have to search very deep in the stacks to find it in any library. What went wrong? I’ve reconstructed my involvement with EWED  from diary entries over the years I worked on it and added a few reflections at the end.

The story begins in London, which I was about to quit, having lived there for most of the ten previous years. During that time I had established a meagre livelihood as a freelance lexicographer, having worked on various projects for Longman and Cambridge.

20 March 1996: I had a meeting with Kathy Rooney [publisher at Bloomsbury] this afternoon. I signed a confidentiality agreement so restrictive that I probably run the risk of my heirs being sued by writing about the subject of our talk here – but anyway it emerges there is an all new, from scratch native speaker dictionary in the works and I might have the opp’ty to play a role in its formation – the next few weeks should tell.

Our continuing talks were fruitful, and I soon returned to the States. I began work compiling the headword list for letter A and also recruiting other freelancers to work on the project, for a bounty of £50 per head. My impression at this point was that money was no object for whatever needed to be done to move the dictionary forward.

18 Oct 1996: Kathy Rooney [now editor-in-chief of EWED] and Faye Carney [executive editor], her right hand, visited last weekend. It was one of these classic fall days. We had lunch [in nearby Hanover, PA] in a big sunny room overlooking lawns. It went splendidly. They asked if I would work in London for 2-3 months next year and I said yes, not wanting to say no, and wanting to keep a door open. . . . At present I’m still rounding up lexicographers for them and editing a section that one of their English lexies compiled.

I continued to work on EWED for the next three months, defining. At the time I was living rent free but with no other income at a meditation retreat center, where I was the caretaker and cook; the income from Bloomsbury was useful, and the work agreeable. We worked on Windows-based software, homegrown at Bloomsbury just for EWED. The part of the screen reserved  for the definition was tiny and if you went over 25 words it beeped at you, irritatingly. This was to discourage prolix definitions.

On New Year’s Day, 1997, I wrote “I can picture one version of myself just plodding along here for the next 2 or 3 years, feeding at the Bloomsbury trough, arranging occasional diversions here and there – but this seems too stultifying.” Two weeks later I wrote “Bloomsbury requires cogitation which suddenly I have little patience for. At best I seem to be get in a couple of hours a day, much preferring to attend to all the things that want doing around here [at the meditation center].”

The opportunity arose for me to spend some months in Australia with my meditation teachers. Though I knew it would mean much less or no work on the dictionary, it was appealing to me at the time: the teachers were getting on in years and I knew I would never have another such opportunity. So I packed up and set off for Perth, Western Australia, pretty much leaving EWED behind and becoming completely absorbed into the busy life of the meditation center there. I didn’t return to the states until late April, and didn’t properly get back to work on EWED till June, where I find this entry in my diary.

6 June 1997: The week has passed quickly and appears in memory as a steady slog in the dictionary, broken up with minor diversions. This is of necessity. Bloomsbury is up in arms at my long idleness; industry is necessary to regain their high opinion. It’s been tedious but I’ve kept at it with good results.

Six weeks later, I’m still at it:

21 July 1997: My nose is almost continuously buried in the dictionary as I dutifully try to redeem myself with Bloomsbury. I think it’s working, and a side benefit has been the fairly hefty earnings – about $750 a week for the 15 or so hours I give it. The center suffers proportionally and is in a state . . .

In September I returned to London for the promised working on site at Bloomsbury, which I began after spending some time on a retreat with my teachers in Wiltshire.

28 Sept 1997: I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the very sudden transition from meditation retreat to Soho Square office and I spent the first 2 days in shock, waiting only for the day to end but then sleeping fitfully under the weight of stress. By week’s end, however, I seem to have made the adjustment and had mastered behaving, perhaps even feeling, like an ordinary working stiff. The office and its inhabitants are all agreeable, save for the “other American,” with whom I share a space: he’s a sad divorcé who swears too much and is disillusioned with life.

It may sound exotic to work in office overlooking Soho Square; it was not. Our workspace was a tiny converted storage closet, in which three adjacent work stations had been set up, with a narrow aisle behind them. One of my colleagues lay down in this aisle one day to rest; we complained because we were then unable to scoot our chairs back. But the work had to go on, and we all adapted.

11 Oct 1997: I am caught up in the demanding routine of work, which takes far more time than I ever thought it would. Though the weeks seem to pass quickly the days drag by; the work is so tedious and lacking in variety. I had hoped there might be a variety of things to do here, but the production schedule is such that there is nothing for anyone to do but work, work, work. I’m checking sections of the dictionary, giving it the penultimate read and allegedly getting it into publishable form. I am unused to dedicating hours of unbroken attention to such a task, and it is dreary.

8 Nov 1997: Work, to my surprise, has settled into an easily manageable routine. In the first weeks here I never imagined this would happen, it just seemed too unnatural to spend so many hours a day concentrating in front of a monitor and I was sure it could only be done by grim force, but now it comes easily. And suddenly only three weeks remain in my 10-week onsite commitment.

I took a short vacation on the continent following the time in London and returned to the States in December, continuing EWED work remotely as I had done before. It was not all roses but it was by then my longest running lexicography gig and still going strong.

22 Dec 1997: The dictionary rolls on in the background with unprecedented dullness. A long section I have now contains block, blood, blow, and blue – all major quagmires. And this is only B. After more months of this I’ll be barking, but oh-so-flush with cash.

14 Feb 1998: I’ve received via email a lengthy feedback report on one of the batches of work I edited months ago. It has had a galvanizing effect, the thrust of which is to work myself out of this lexicographical gig as soon as circumstances permit. It’s mostly an ego thing and comes down to this: I don’t conceive of myself as having lived these 44 years so I would have the opportunity to quietly read on my screen the pedantic criticism of this ___________, Bloomsbury’s ex-OUP “senior checker” who has clearly relished her role of documenting the minute failings in all that she sees. If I stay in this business, really all I have to look forward to is becoming her or becoming _________, well-intentioned and bright but charged with an impossible task of turning out the perfect dictionary in record time, using only mortals.

21 Feb 1998: I purr away at the dictionary, sometimes contentedly, sometimes exasperatedly. It is a monumental task of monotony but it pays so exceedingly well I couldn’t think of abandoning it—not now anyway.

11 May 1998: The weekdays follow a set pattern: after breakfast I work without respite on the dictionary till I finish the day’s quota, being at least 1/5 of the batch in hand. If I’m lucky I finish by 2:30.

24 Aug 1998: There is this raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth: Bloomsbury has drastically cut my pay (owing mostly to budget mismanagement, I think), and I’m suddenly earning $200 a week less than formerly. I’m trying every weapon in my arsenal to squeeze more dimes out of them, so far without success.

28 Aug 1998: Bloomsbury has relented half-way on their swingeing pay cut and restored some $ (and dignity) to my checks, but not before an awfully bad taste developed in my mouth about the whole affair.

6 September 1998: Little passes under my nose but the dictionary. I don’t actually mind doing it, I even enjoy it a good deal of the time, but I don’t like the notion that life is ever passing by as I do it. It requires so much of my time that there is none to reflect about what I’d rather be doing. I suppose I should be thankful.

7 Oct 1998: Bloomsbury has not restored me to the full glory of £19 an hour, which I feel that I so richly deserve, so I’m going to take on a tentative project from OUP for $30 an hour. If it’s enjoyable I might push over Bloomsb. altogether, though it’s probably prudent to keep a foot in both doors.

11 Nov 1998: Dictionary duty has finally stabilized and now won’t require anything but my time and attention for the next several months. OUP is a reasonable afternoon diversion for 2 or 3 hours, and the morning is still Bloomsbury. Kathy Rooney has finally relented and restored my pay to what it was before the August cut.

21 Jan 1999: The dictionary has arrived at the most stultifying stage, where one is asked to quickly review hundreds of entries, checking that they are technically complete and correct. It requires no creative effort, only mind-numbing attention to detail.

4 April 1999: Bloomsbury, at last, is in death throes and I expect the dictionary will be all finished on Friday.

The published dictionary appeared in July 1999 with much promotional fanfare. Sidney was not alone in being underwhelmed by its achievement; it received at best lukewarm reviews everywhere. There are many reasons for its failure but they can all be summarized under the heading of the main one: you can’t write a quality dictionary of English from scratch in three years using a workforce of internationally dispersed lexicographers with little training, varying ability, and wavering commitment.

Having built the database, Bloomsbury (and Microsoft, initially) were eager to recoup their investment, and very soon spun off a reduced version of EWED to compete with the “college” dictionaries. It was called Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary: The First Dictionary For The Internet Age. A serious miscalculation there was that the dictionary wasn’t published on the internet. This volume also did not succeed in making its way onto the reference shelf of many schools, libraries, or high school graduates.

A couple of years later, both EWED and the college dictionary were updated, now with “Webster’s” added to the titles of both. This didn’t work either and was, to my mind, the dictionary version of jumping the shark.

Today, the data from the EWED database has disappeared from public view and it isn’t even licensed on any of the dictionary aggregator sites—a shame, to my mind, because there are thousands of solid and original definitions that stand in good comparison to others and that merit study. No titles drawn from EWED data are in print. The reference shelf of contemporary dictionaries in book form no longer exists, Microsoft has mothballed the Encarta brand, and Bloomsbury, though no longer in the dictionary business, has achieved great international success in many other areas of publishing. Think Harry Potter, for example.

I benefited greatly from my association with EWED and I’m grateful for the experience and the income it provided. If the money and the market had been there, it could have been raised to a higher standard and I think it would have eventually established itself beside its more respected peers. But the money was withdrawn and the market collapsed.

I have lunch with Kathy and Faye whenever I’m in London; we reminisce nostalgically about the old days in Soho Square.