Origin and Development of the Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesaurus

Dictionary Suite

Origin and Development of The Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesaurus

The Early Years A Distinctive DictionaryElectronic Ambitions

The Early Years

In the early 1980s, while Robert Parks was on a Fulbright Fellowship in Japan, he did some consulting with a Japanese electronics company. They were interested in adding functionality for students to their computers. He eventually agreed to develop a dictionary for them.

There are two methods of producing dictionary materials—from a primary corpus and from secondary sources. Our editing manual and procedures involved use of both primary and secondary sources. Under Dr. Parks' direction, a group full-time editors (whose number varied from two to four during the project) and a staff of writers, eventually numbering over twenty, worked in Ithaca for over five years producing an original American English Dictionary. This was a distinguished group of writers and editors, many of whom held advanced degrees.

Wordsmyth's aim, from the beginning, was to write for a general audience who wanted a readable source of information about meanings. We wanted to reach people in their offices, workplaces, homes, and schools. We wanted to produce the highest quality and most readable definitions possible.

We considered the possibility of restricting the defining vocabulary (as Longman does in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English), but ultimately rejected that approach. The words in a restricted defining vocabulary are generally the most polysemous and therefore the most difficult to understand unambiguously. We selected a word list of nearly 50,000 headwords covering all of the areas of knowledge that are important in education and in everyday life. This word list is larger than any desk dictionary, pocket dictionary, or school dictionary. In order to keep the size of the word list reasonable, we cut out arcane and technical vocabulary that might be found in larger or unabridged works. But, we made up for this with an important strategic decision: We decided to build linkages among the dictionary entries by integrating a thesaurus directly into the dictionary.

A large percentage of the work had been finished when the electronics firm in Japan decided to change development directions and discontinued their sponsorship of the project. Dr. Parks was then able to acquire the rights to the Wordsmyth Dictionary. In 1991 and 1992 he licensed The Wordsmyth Dictionary to IBM to integrate into their products, and IBM in turn supported the development of the integrated thesaurus—the first step toward a lexipedia. The term "lexipedia" is a coinage that Dr. Parks uses to refer to a dictionary with specific marked relationships among its entries—a sort of "semantic network" that integrates both linguistic and real-world knowledge.

A Distinctive Dictionary

The result of our work is a dictionary that has several important and distinctive qualities. Chief among the distinctive features are (1) clarity, simplicity, and precision of style resulting in definitions that are more accessible than those of American college dictionaries; and (2) the integration of dictionary and thesaurus data, so that only one entry is required instead of both dictionary and thesaurus entries. Succinctly stated:

  • The Wordsmyth Dictionary-Thesaurus (WDT) is the only Dictionary with a complete, integrated thesaurus.
  • Synonyms are keyed to dictionary definitions. No dictionaries (online or in print) offer synonyms keyed to each of the definitions in a dictionary entry. This level of precision is unmatched in any other thesaurus.
  • It is also the only thesaurus with a complete, integrated dictionary.
  • Clarity, simplicity, and precision of style, result in definitions that are more accessible than those of American college dictionaries.
  • The definitions are ordered by frequency of use, so the first definition is most frequently the one the user is seeking.
  • The WDT has more examples than other, comparable dictionaries.
  • The WDT is the only thesaurus to systematically distinguish exact synonyms and near synonyms.

Electronic Ambitions

From the beginning we wanted to reach the widest possible audience, and we were aware of the potential for electronic distribution to make this possible. But it was not until 1996 that it became clear that the Internet would make our vision of a "dictionary for everyone" possible.

University of Chicago's ARTFL Project assisted in presenting the first Web edition of The Wordsmyth Educational Dictionary-Thesaurus. We are grateful to Mark Olsen and the ARTFL Project for their support and guidance in entering the world of Internet educational resources. Our current Web site, with its innovative new access technologies, would not have been possible without this first venture on the Internet.

We believe that in the desire to make use of the plentiful resources of the Internet, people want the convenience of dictionary access at virtually every point in their Web experience. We may not consult a dictionary every day, or even every week — but we still want one conveniently available on hand. It is the one work that finds a place on every bookshelf.

Our Web site is the product of countless hours of collaborative work by a small group of people who have faith in the educative potential of the Internet, a passion for knowledge and education, and the skills to put these ideas into practice. This group that has become The Wordsmyth Collaboratory and is responsible for this Web site, presenting The Wordsmyth Dictionary-Thesaurus to the world with much vigor and hope for its future.