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The Great Palm OS Dictionary Shoot-out: BDicty, Mi:D, MSDict, Oxford American, and PocketLingo
Posted December 2003 by Tanker Bob

“Words mean things.” That's a popular quote, and one that's right on target. Three things make an impression when meeting someone—your appearance, your attitude, and your use of language. When writing, only the last remains. To make the best impression and appear as erudite as possible, one must have a good command of the language and apply it aptly. A good dictionary and thesaurus provide the tools for the best possible impression.

A number of factors make a good dictionary app. The interface is the window to the application's underlying power. It should be attractive as well as functional, but shouldn't distract from the underlying purpose. Search speed enhances utility, especially in large databases. The bottom line for dictionaries, however, lies in the words.

It's tempting to concentrate on word count, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Vendors usually base word counts on the entirety of its headwords—the bold-typed word at the top that the work defines. Some companies inflate headwords by including plurals and other forms in the headword count, rendering a word count that significantly exceeds the number of unique root words in the database. Another word-count obfuscation technique involves the inclusion of entries that most users would never need, things like obscure plants, animal names, and places. The real meat lies in the depth and usefulness of the definitions combined with a good word selection. You won't lea rn that from the word count alone. In fact, word count can be very misleading, as Beiks' offering handily illustrates.

Since a dictionary and thesaurus team supplies the minimum basis for vocabulary building, I evaluated all the entrants in that combination. For interesting and difficult words to use in the test, I employed The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich. I didn't play stump the dummy, but did challenge the databases. In addition, I chose a few terms of recent origin to see how current as well as comprehensive the databases were.

The products chosen for this review all bring something to the mix. Each will be discussed individually. This review included BDicty, Mi:D (two dictionaries), MSDict (two dictionaries), Oxford American, and PocketLingo (two dictionaries).

A Side Trip

A word (no pun intended) needs to be said about Princeton Cognitive Science Laboratory's WordNet project. Why? Because many PDA dictionary apps have a reduced WordNet lexicon as their primary dictionary. Is this a problem? Maybe. This is how the WordNet web site describes the project: "WordNet® is an online lexical reference system whose design is inspired by current psycholinguistic theories of human lexical memory. English nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are organized into synonym sets, each representing one underlying lexical concept. Different relations link the synonym sets." Psycholinguistics is defined in WN 1.6 as "the branch of cognitive psychology that studies the psychological basis of linguistic competence and performance." This grouping into synonym sets erases the shades of meaning between the individual words inside each set. Sometimes that's appropriate, sometimes not. When selecting down to a PDA-sized database, most of the morphological distinctions are lost and no real difference remains between similar words. My beef w/PDA WordNet implementations is that there are many cases where they use other single words as definitions. Again, shades of meaning tend to get lost between similar words since they share the exact same definition. The actual full WordNet database for the PC has much more detail and some nuancing. Have you heard the word 'dictionary' used yet? No? That's because it isn't a dictionary by the classic definition. It is, however, free. Most PDA WordNet implementations use the 1.6 database, a few use 1.71, but the current full version sits at 2.0. I consciously did not include any pure WordNet dictionaries in this review, but did include two products with enhanced WordNet databases. If your favorite isn't discussed here, check the basis for its dictionary database. If it's pure WordNet, it's not really a dictionary in the classic sense of the term.

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