Thursday, October 28, 2010

A dictionary that doesn't discourage

"Yet another dictionary!" I said to myself when, recently, I received a complimentary copy of WordMaster, a learner's dictionary brought out by Orient Longman.

When I opened the dictionary, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was an all-Indian venture.  Even more pleasant was the fact that some of the members of the editorial team were very well known to me: Bikram K Das, Usha Aroor, Vani Vasudevan, and R Vadivelu.  Traditionally, lexicography has been the special preserve of men.  WordMaster is refreshingly different: as many as 16 of the 26-member editorial team are women, and the chief editor of the team is Usha Aroor.  But the dictionary doesn't have only such trivia to recommend it.  It has some special features – features which contribute to its learner-friendliness.

Since the advent of the advanced learner's dictionaries (ALDs), the role of the dictionary has greatly changed: far from being a mere reference volume, the dictionary is now an effective teaching-learning aid.  Teachers of English expect their students to bring to class a dictionary – not a pocket-size dictionary but an ALD.  If students don't carry one, it is because an ALD is extremely large in size.  A typical ALD is a 1500 – 1700-page volume.  But WordMaster is a handy dictionary: it is half the size (724 pages) of a typical ALD with 35,000 references.  It is as easy to carry as the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary, a 767-page volume whose graphic features, however, are much more attractive than those of WordMaster.

I have repeatedly heard college students complain that dictionaries are a complete yawn because of their information overload.  I wouldn't agree it is overkill because students at the college level need different meanings of a word as well as some guidance on how to use the word appropriately to serve different purposes.  But the fact remains, at the same time, that students don't feel encouraged to read a dictionary page that is cluttered with a lot of information under one entry.  Dictionaries like the Macmillan English Dictionary have tried to compensate for this laboriousness by using attractive design features.  WordMaster takes the easy – but sensible – way out: it doesn't go beyond the most common meanings of words and the most basic information on grammatical usage.  The pursuit, I guess, of the possible!

WordMaster is different from other dictionaries in another respect.  In any dictionary, the meaning of a word is followed by an example sentence to show how the word is used in context.  In WordMaster, the illustrative sentence comes first, followed by the meaning.  The idea behind it is a language learning strategy: guess the meaning of a new word from the context in which it is found.  The guess is later confirmed when the user reads the meaning that follows.

Considering that WordMaster is basically meant for use in South Asia, it is sensitive to the 'regional' senses of some words.  Here is a sample: "blouse – a garment that covers the upper part of a woman's body, generally reaching above the waist, worn with a sari"; "bless – to express a wish that God may protect or bring happiness to someone (done by older relatives, etc. on the occasion of a wedding, birthday, etc.)"

WordMaster is a welcome addition to the already valuable stock of ALDs.


  1. Sir, I could indeed associate with one of the core points in the post: dictionary as a teaching-learning aid.

    In fact, in the course book that is released by JNTUK for the first-year engineering and pharmacy students, the use of dictionary in the class is highlighted. Of course, there are a variety of activities that require the dictionary's help.

    Moreover, even the students are fairly aware of the sources through which they could develop their English language skills. One of the students in the class expressed that dictionary is one of the 'media' through which one could be exposed to the language.

    Thanks to all the dictionaries that are on the market, which create a dais to the students to learn the language in an effective way.

  2. Since there is a demand for these pirated books, there is also a supply of them. The one reason for piracy is that these books are affordable for many people with lesser price. I find buying an original book is always a distant dream for many interested readers.The publishers should seriously consider it....