Originally created 07/09/01

Microsoft's new college dictionary missing a few facts



NEW YORK -- All U.S. presidents since the Civil War qualify as statesmen, except Richard Nixon. Robert Kennedy was a politician, but Newt Gingrich is a "political leader." And former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover is just a lawyer.

The new Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary is being promoted as a revolutionary addition to the competitive campus market, with its makers saying its more accessible style and extensive spelling guidance and usage notes make it the first such book truly suited to today's students.

But however useful it proves for language skills, students also will receive some odd lessons in political and popular history in the book, available only in paper form.

Definitions of some notable people are inconsistent, misleading or outright inaccurate:

-From George Washington to George W. Bush, presidents in the Microsoft dictionary also receive the label "statesman," except for two: Nixon ("37th president of the United States") and Zachary Taylor ("military leader and 12th president of the United States"). Franklin Pierce is not even labeled a president, just a statesman.

-Dick Cheney and Al Gore are both listed as "statesman and vice president of the United States." But Spiro Agnew, Nixon's vice president, is simply a "politician."

-Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner is a "dictator." Spain's Francisco Franco is an "authoritarian leader." Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet are "national" leaders. Idi Amin is a "head of state." And Joseph Stalin is a "statesman."

-The entries for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and other presidential wives all note they were first ladies. But Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, is identified only as a "feminist." "She wouldn't have even understood that word," says David McCullough, author of the best-selling biography "John Adams."

Anne Soukhanov, the dictionary's general editor, acknowledged a "glitch" in the editorial process. She said the definitions were shortened versions of entries in the Microsoft Encarta World English Dictionary, published in 1999, and that vital information was inadvertently left out.

"It would have been much nicer if cross-checks had been made in individual categories like vice president," she said.

Soukhanov said the entries would be amended, but did not know when that would happen. She indicated subjective-sounding words such as "statesman" and "politician" would be dropped.

"Dictionary editors have always been taught to avoid attaching value judgments to words they define. And yet when it comes to people, it seems we have slipped, all of us," she said.

While Soukhanov defended the dictionary's overall integrity, saying the mistakes were not "world-threatening," a longtime analyst of the reference field was more troubled.

"Consistency is an obvious hallmark of a good reference book," said Ken Kister, author of the consumer guide Kister's Best Dictionaries.

"Biographical entries are peripheral for most dictionary users, but anything that isn't right about a reference book casts doubt on the whole editorial process," Kister said.

Long associated with encyclopedias, biographical entries are a relatively new feature for dictionaries. After World War II, publishers of dictionaries wanted to expand their appeal and began including references to politicians, artists and other historical figures, Kister said.

Quirks in these entries aren't uncommon, and pop culture seems an especially tricky area. Webster's II New College Dictionary, for instance, defines Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as musicians and composers, but George Harrison as a "singer and songwriter."

The American Heritage College Dictionary, meanwhile, labels Lennon a "musician and composer who wrote many of the Beatles' songs." McCartney, his prolific songwriting partner, is simply a "musician and composer who was a member of the Beatles." Harrison, again, is a "singer and songwriter."

In the Microsoft version, Lennon is listed as a "singer, songwriter, and musician." McCartney, the band's most versatile instrumentalist, is just a "singer and songwriter." Harrison, who wrote and sang lead on the classics "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun," is a "musician." Starr is labeled both drummer and musician and is the only one identified as a Beatle.

Microsoft's new reference work - released by the software giant, St. Martin's Press and London-based Bloomsbury Publishing - is an attempt to to grab a piece of the lucrative college market.

"We're trying to address some major issues," Soukhanov said. "We have done extensive research and were startled to find out that students need a great deal of help with spelling and basic usage."

The book looks like a traditional dictionary, but contains such unusual features as warnings on what computer spellcheck programs might do to certain words and 700 words listed under their common misspellings.

Microsoft already brings an uncertain history to the reference field. Its World English dictionary was criticized for some peculiar editorial decisions, such as including a picture of Microsoft head Bill Gates, but not of John Kennedy. The Gates photo has been dropped for the college edition, and one of Kennedy added.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary has a suggested retail price of $24.95.

Biographical glitches in the new Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary:

-George Washington is listed as a "general," statesman and president. Dwight Eisenhower is a "soldier," statesman and president. Ulysses Grant, leader of the Union forces in the Civil War, is only a statesman and president.

-Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is a "stateswoman." Her immediate predecessor, Warren Christopher, is a "government official." Her successor, Colin Powell, is a "general and politician."

-Warren Burger is listed as "chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court." His immediate predecessor, Earl Warren, is identified as a "U.S. Supreme Court judge." But Burger's successor, William Rehnquist, is only a "U.S. jurist."

-J. Edgar Hoover is a "lawyer." Alger Hiss is a "lawyer and government official." Newt Gingrich is a "political leader," Robert Kennedy a "politician." Betty Friedan is a "feminist leader," Gloria Steinem just a "feminist."

-Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak are both listed as an "Israeli soldier, politician and prime minister." Yitzhak Rabin, also a military leader, is listed as an "Israeli prime minister and statesman." Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion, also prime ministers, are identified only as Israeli statesmen. The entry for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads "Israeli politician."

-Shaquille O'Neal gets an entry, but not Tip O'Neill. Quentin Tarantino is included, but not Frank Capra. John Denver and Olivia Newton-John make it, but not Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Janis Joplin or Neil Young.

-O.J. Simpson is merely a "football player, sportscaster and actor." Jane Fonda is an "actor and political activist," but Charlton Heston and Susan Sarandon are just actors. Stan Laurel is a "comedian," Oliver Hardy an "actor." Johnny Carson is an "entertainer," David Letterman a "television host" and Jay Leno? He's not included.