The latest Collins Cobuild dictionaries are so user-friendly you can just read them like a book

Elaine Higgleton writes your dictionaries. And just 20 years ago, she literally wrote them. “It was all by hand in 1988,” she smiled, explaining how the Collins dictionaries used to be put together, before being printed. “We wrote on A3 sheets. We would use coloured ballpoint pens and write all along the sides of the paper.”

Today, despite high tech computers, experienced researchers and some nifty programming, the process hasn’t really got much easier. English is changing faster than ever before, pushed by technology, globalisation and the Internet. On top of that, traditional print dictionaries face immense competition from the many online vocabulary sources available, specialising in particular topics ranging from edgy urban culture to basic synonyms. Which could explain why Robert Scriven chose ‘game change’ as his word for the day, at a recent launch of the Collins Cobuild Advanced Illustrated Dictionary and the Collins Cobuild Learner’s Illustrated Dictionary.

Speaking at the British Council, where the dictionaries were released in partnership with Ratna Sagar (a publishing house specialising in textbooks) Scriven elaborated on factors that are changing English. “The Internet whizzes words around the world. More foreign words are used,” he said. In India alone, English is changing rapidly.

Till the late Nineties, language experts such as Elaine would sit with a range of dictionaries, magazines, newspapers and books, looking for new words that needed to be added to the dictionary. “They had to interrogate large amounts of text to look for the frequency of a word, the company it keeps and the situations in which it is used,” said Scriven. All that changed with COBUILD (Collins Birmingham University International Language Database). A British research facility in the University of Birmingham and funded by Collins, the project created a corpus of words and uses a programme that constantly scans contemporary English language sources, finding and monitoring new words.

Elaine Higgleton, who is also Editorial Director Language at Collins, said, “The corpus currently has 4.4 billion words, which is the largest of its kind.” This includes written and spoken data. This includes words from Australian English, British English, American English, Canadian English, Indian English, New Zealand English and South African English.

Which is how Tollywood made its way into the new edition of the Collins Dictionary. “About 85 per cent of English speech is made up of 5,000 words,” said Elaine. However, an additional 15 to 20 million new words come along every month from across the world. Their programme picks these out. If they’re used widely enough, they make it into the dictionary. “We monitored the word Tollywood for a few years, once it started being used in English globally, it was added.”

These two new dictionaries, made with COBUILD, attempt to make learning English simple and interesting. With pictures and colour, ironically, they’re laid out almost like web-pages so Internet-age children feel comfortable using them. Scriven advises you to “Open it. Read it like a book. Look at one word, let it lead to another.”

Give the painstaking dictionary writers a chance. (The dictionaries will be available in bookstores in a month.)

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