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Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary from WordGenius Review



March 29, 2006 at 7:34 am · Filed under News

I love words. In fact, I’m a word snob and I’m not afraid to admit it. Having been a professional writer and editor for pretty much my entire life I revel in the English language. I actually like reading and collecting grammar textbooks, thesauri, encyclopedia, and dictionaries. So when I had the chance to evaluate the recently released Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary from WordGenius, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t that I was looking to score a free dictionary – I already own more dictionaries than most normal people do – it was because I just like dictionaries of any kind.

The good folks at WordGenius supplied me with a download link and in a remarkably short time I had the RHWUD downloaded, installed, and running. For the rest of the day I was blissfully neck-deep in cross references, word origins, pronunciations, and simply wandering through the 315,000 entries.

The WordGenius version (introductory price US$49.95 normal price $59.95 Windows only) of the RHWUD is based on the latest 2005 edition of the famed unabridged dictionary (2nd Edition). The WordGenius version uses the Eurofield Information Solutions eComPress electronic dictionary publishing technology which means it always remains compressed to less than 15MB.

If you follow the recommended installation steps the program will auto-launch at startup and place what they call a “Drag-on Icon” on your screen that remains on top of any application (the behavior, size, and startup options can be easily changed later if you don’t like the defaults). This drag-on icon is pretty handy if you look up words frequently. Simply highlight a word in practically any application and drag it onto the icon to automatically launch the dictionary with your word definition. Simply clicking on the icon will also launch the dictionary.

Once the dictionary viewer is launched you have a number of ways to search for words and definitions. You can search by entering a word in the ‘headword’ search box. The viewer supports the wildcards ‘?’ to represent a single unknown character and ‘*’ to represent any number of unknown characters. This is obviously a great help if you don’t know exactly how to spell a particular word (or for crossword puzzles). You can also set the viewer to perform ‘Extended Headword Searches’ so that it will find instances of words with qualifying words or prefixes. For example, with Extended Headword Search activated, searching for the word ‘wrap’ will also bring up ‘bubble wrap’ and ‘plastic wrap.’

The second way to search for words is by definition. This is probably one of the most powerful features of the WordGenius version of the dictionary. Enter any word (or combination of words using the Boolean operators ‘AND’ or ‘OR’) and the program will locate any words with your search word(s) in the definitions. This feature acts a little bit like a thesaurus (although it’s not quite as easy as a true electronic thesaurus.)

Once you have performed your search you can view the results in a number of ways. You can view headwords as a simple list without the definitions (handy when looking for a particular word within a long list of hits) or expanded, showing the full definitions for each word found. You can also toggle the view to show only the words found in your search or all the dictionary entries surrounding that word (handy if your search doesn’t give the exact word you’re looking for but you think you might be close). In this view you can scroll up and down through the entire dictionary if you wish.

Another nice feature is the ability to drag and drop any word from your results list into the headword or definition boxes to start a new search or you can select a word and press ‘Enter’ to search for that word as a headword or ‘Ctrl + N’ to search for that word in definitions. There are also forward and back functions (quite useful when you need to look up a word within a definition and then return to the original word entry) and basic copy and print functions within the program.

There is also an ‘Audio Pronunciation assistant’ function that can be activated that sounds out the phonetic pronunciation letters when you move the cursor over them. It should be noted that this function doesn’t pronounce the entire word all at once; it only speaks the individual phonemes one at a time. Unfortunately this only gives you a rough idea about how the entire word should sound since it’s not quite responsive enough to speak all the phonemes one after the other if you move the cursor quickly from beginning to end. It also has the annoying habit of speaking any phoneme on the page that you accidentally move the cursor over so I kept the function deactivated most of the time.

The help files embedded in the program are fairly brief yet comprehensive and include two mini-tutorials. (I also found a typo in the help files, which in any other program would be forgivable, but in a dictionary program it stands out like a sore thumb.)

As far as content goes, the WordGenius version of the RHWUD contains all 315,000 entries found in the print edition (although I didn’t actually count each one). Unfortunately it doesn’t include any of the illustrations or tables even though they are occasionally referenced in the text. It also lacks the extra articles that are found in the print edition such as the history of English, detailed pronunciation guides, style guides, lists of colleges and universities, etc. or even the list of editors and contributing editors that compiled the dictionary. Because of limitations in the viewer, they have also omitted a number of special symbols, special accent marks, and things like Greek letters replacing them with ‘textual compensation.’

Bottom Line So is the WordGenius version of the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary worth it? At first I would have said maybe. Not everyone needs a full-blown unabridged dictionary, then again, the only reason for not buying an unabridged dictionary is the sheer mass of a printed edition (I have a 1930s print edition of the Webster’s Unabridged dictionary that weighs nearly 15 pounds and since then the language has grown by about 33%). But if it is electronic then size isn’t an issue anymore so why not have a dictionary with all the words rather than just most of them?

While the WordGenius version is perfectly functional and the definition search is quite handy, I’ve mentioned that it does have a few drawbacks and annoyances such as lack of illustrations, tables, certain special characters and full word pronunciations. I could live with those limitations if this was the only electronic dictionary available however, curiously enough, Random House publishes their own CD-ROM version of the same dictionary for $19.95 that also includes more than 2,400 illustrations and 120,000 recorded pronunciations. Why spend $60 for a version of the RHWUD without illustrations or pronunciations when you can get the exact same dictionary for $20 that does include them?

If 20 bucks still seems like a lot for pretty much every word in the English language you can pick up Random House’s 1999 version on CD-ROM for about $7 at www.elearnaid.com/ranhouswebun2.html. Of course, if $7 is still too steep you could just go to www.onelook.com which will link your word search to more than 900 free online dictionaries.

Electronic dictionaries have been available for about twenty years now and they all do pretty much the same thing. The WordGenius version of the RHWUD may have a few unique and handy features but I don’t think those features are worth the extra $40.

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