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Review of the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary CD-ROM

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Content

The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary CD-ROM (RHWUD) contains the 1999 edition of the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one of the two largest and most authoritative dictionaries of American English (the other is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary). It does not contain the Random House Thesaurus.

This review covers the software (CD-ROM) version of the RHWUD, not the book version, which is big, heavy, harder to read, and slower to use.

Definitions

The RHWUD is an English-English (monolingual) dictionary designed mainly for native speakers. This means that it doesn’t try to give simple and friendly definitions like a learner’s dictionary. Instead, it sticks to a rather dry lexicographic style:

tenacious = holding fast; characterized by keeping a firm hold (often fol. by of): a tenacious grip on my arm; tenacious of old habits.
bask = to lie in or be exposed to a pleasant warmth: to bask in the sunshine.

Example sentences

There are far fewer example sentences in the RHWUD than in a learner’s dictionary. When I looked up 22 intermediate/advanced words chosen randomly from a book, the RHWUD had 3.2 example sentences per word. There were, on average, 8.5 meanings for each of the 22 words, which means that less than 1 in 2 meanings had an example sentence.

For the same sample, the COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary had 6 example sentences per word, 3.5 meanings per word, and almost 2 example sentences per meaning. Being a dictionary for native speakers, the RHWUD has twice as many meanings as the COBUILD, but each meaning has 4 times fewer example sentences.

Phonetic transcriptions

The RHWUD provides phonetic transcriptions for practically all words. There are no transcriptions of compound words like fish stick or unanticipated, but this is no big problem, as you can look up fish, stick, and anticipated instead. The dictionary includes transcriptions of proper names such as McNaughton, Gynergen or San Rafael, and even Latin phrases like mirabile dictu.

Instead of the IPA, the dictionary uses its own system of phonetic transcription. If you are familiar with the basics of English pronunciation, you should have no problem learning it — for example, by listening to the recordings and comparing them with the transcriptions or by looking up simple words for which you know the transcription (e.g. go, run, bed, now).

It’s worth remembering that the dictionary has its own transcription conventions, some of which are less precise than those used in other dictionaries. For instance, any and near are both transcribed with the “ee” vowel (as in keep), even though in speech they each sound a bit different. Similarly, tourist is transcribed with the “oo” vowel (book). Stress is marked by placing an apostrophe after, not before he stressed syllable.

Recordings

Wherever it gives phonetic transcriptions, the RHWUD also provides recordings (listen to a sample in mp3 format). For words with two or more alternative transcriptions, the recording is usually provided only for the most popular alternative. All the words are pronounced by professional speakers, and match the transcriptions perfectly, even for difficult foreign entries like Ludwig Wittgenstein (listen). The dictionary does not confuse you by showing you one thing, and playing another.

The only problem is that the technical quality of the recordings is average — probably because the software uses an old sound compression technology.

Software quality

The dictionary offers an “install to hard drive” option (you have to select “Custom Installation” during the setup process), which allows you to use the software without the CD in the drive.

The RHWUD starts up very quickly and works fast. The user interface is good, except for a few flaws. One problem is that before you can start typing a word, you have to click on the search box and erase its contents (i.e. the previous word you looked up). By contrast, in the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s dictionary, you can just start typing without thinking about the search box.

A more annoying problem is that the dictionary does not support mousewheel scrolling or realtime scrolling. When you want to scroll down in the definition window, you have to use the slider on the right side, and the window is scrolled only when you release the mouse button (not at the same time as you move the slider).

I do like the fact that you can browse through all the entries in the dictionary by scrolling a list (here realtime scrolling works). The process is similar to leafing through a book and enables you to learn completely random words just for fun.

The RHWUD fails most frequently of all the dictionaries I have used. You can expect a crash once every 100-200 words you look up. On one unlucky computer I tested the RHWUD on, the dictionary seemed to crash once every 30-50 words. Generally, it is not the most stable piece of software and you’ll have to get used to restarting it occasionally.

Do you need this dictionary?

If you are an English learner, I do not recommend the RHWUD as your primary dictionary, even though I learned English from a similar software dictionary myself. Today, you can get CD-ROM dictionaries with many more example sentences and nicer definitions (e.g. the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English).

However, a large dictionary like the RHWUD can be very useful as your second dictionary:

  • Because it is so huge, it contains things that are not found in a learner’s dictionary. These include:

    • advanced words: diathesis, lathwork, fender bender, highfaluting
    • meanings: arbor in the mechanical sense
    • phrasal verbs: kick back, hike up
    • cultural entries: City of Brotherly Love, Garden State, AAA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy
    • encyclopedic entries: Godel’s incompleteness theorem, MAO inhibitor, Pensacola Bay
    • idioms: push up daisies, put the screws on

    Each of these advanced words, phrases and meanings occurs rarely, but you will always come across a few of them when reading any text in English — it’s guaranteed.

  • The RHWUD is a reliable source of American pronunciations, both phonetic transcriptions and recordings. If you are learning American English and use the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary on CD (which does not have phonetic transcriptions or American recordings), a dictionary like the RHWUD is absolutely necessary.
  • ...And, of course, two dictionaries are better than one, because they give you a lot more example sentences than just one dictionary.

In conclusion, the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary CD-ROM is highly recommended for learners of American English who already have a good learner’s dictionary.

The RHWUD or the online Merriam-Webster?

screenshot from the RHWUD
Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary
screenshot from m-w.com
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (m-w.com)

There is a free online dictionary at Merriam-Webster’s site (m-w.com), which has about the same number of words as the RHWUD. However, I still think it is a good idea to pay $15.00 + shipping and get the RHWUD. Here’s why:

  • The RHWUD works faster. You don’t have to wait for the page to load. Recordings are played instantly. The relative slowness of m-w.com discourages you from looking up words, which is not good when you want to learn as many words as you can.
  • The RHWUD has a much clearer layout. See right for an example entry (go) in both dictionaries.
  • The RHWUD presents all the meanings on one page. On m-w.com, it’s not enough to type in rack — you have to choose between rack[1,noun], rack[2,intransitive verb], rack[3,noun], rack[4,verb] or one of five other subentries. This slows you down and requires you to make a decision before you can look up a word.
  • M-w.com sometimes gives too many alternative pronunciations, e.g. pronunciations used in some regions of the US, but not in “standard American English”. One example is catch, which is transcribed /kætʃ | ketʃ/. Another is actor, which, according to m-w.com, can be pronounced /ˈæktɔ:r/ in addition to the standard /ˈæktər/. This may mislead learners who are trying to learn American English as spoken on television.
  • Both dictionaries have about the same number of example sentences. In a sample of 22 words, RHWUD had 3.2 example per word, while m-w.com had 2 examples in the dictionary and 1.4 examples in the thesaurus (3.4 in total). However, the RHWUD has examples for almost every phrasal verb (e.g. keep at, run down) and idiom. M-w.com has very few examples for such entries.
  • Examples on m-w.com are often very brief (e.g. jam his hat on). The RHWUD usually uses full sentence examples (e.g. He jammed his hat on and stalked out of the room.)
  • The definitions in the RHWUD are a bit easier to understand than on m-w.com.