AMITIAE - Saturday 31 March 2012

Bloomsbury Dictionary of Computing and Other Specialist Dictionaries

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

Dictionary of Computing

I have noticed in my classes that the students have made a major switch in their use of dictionaries. They used to buy the student editions of these mainly from publishers like Oxford, Cambridge or Longmans, but in the last year or two, the classes of second year Mechanical Engineers have been heavily weighted in favour of iPhones. These bright kids use the various dictionary apps available for the device and the paper version is being superseded by technology.

I regard understanding words as critical to learning English. My students have learned grammar ad nauseam, yet cannot write a grammatical sentence unless pushed, prodded, shoved and shaken (metaphorically). While they were learning this excess baggage, their esteemed teachers forgot to give them the one tool that would improve their understanding (with or without grammar): the words with which to communicate.


To define something is to control it: to understand, to limit, to avoid confusion. I use dictionaries all the time, from those on the iPhone to the three-finger gesture on the Mac that brings up a definition panel, as well as the two great tomes of the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) that sit in my office: a bargain when I bought it for $25 when I was in the US in the 1980s. Have you ever really needed to know the meaning of a word and when it was first used?

I was scouting round the iTunes app store earlier and saw a reference to the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Law. I was a UK policeman in the 1970s and remember (not too fondly) my copy of Moriarty's Police Law and the more informative Stone's Justices Manual that was in the Station office. Law too needs its definitions to control and limit.

Interested in the concept of such a dictionary, I examined the Lexicon Apps site and was intrigued to see there were more. On the iTunes store there are a dozen Bloomsbury Dictionaries listed in the Tagstar Publishing page, each priced at $6.99:

I must admit that I was sorely tempted by those on Food and on Wine, but more sensibly decided to run the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Computing through its paces.


Dictionary of Computing

One of the marks of good developers is the effort that is put into the app icon which, as we look at it on screen is relatively small. Examined in a graphics application, the full sized (7.111") TIFF file that looks a little bland with its salmon pink background has a lot of detail including a grey shadow image of the archer icon. The sort of details that are missed if we glance at an app icon, but that are always there (in the better ones) to illustrate just one aspect of the care.

After an opening screen, the app opens at an A - Z index. And you can scroll right the way from A, A, A: or Å through to Zooming and ZV Port. It is easier of course to use the alphabetical shortcuts at the side of the panel or the search panel at the top. There are apparently more than 10,000 terms, although I decided not to count. The time it took me to scroll through a couple of times -- top to bottom and bottom to top -- tells me there are clearly a great many and a figure 10,000 is easy to accept.

As the list is scrolled, a small panel near the top shows the first letter of the apps in the panel, in lower case and upper case characters, like Ee, Ss, Zz. If the screen is used in landscape mode, the list and first letter panel are shown, but instead of the alphabet to the right for quick access to entries, only some of the letters are shown (space constraints) with a dot between. However, when the list is touched users are able to scroll quickly by just sliding the finger up or down.


As an English teacher I was pleased with the way the definition entries were done, with a phonetic display of the term and the part of speech: ZV Port is a noun. The definition is below and with some entries there is additional information to expand the understanding of the user. There may also be hyperlinks to another entry in the dictionary

The app is best used in portrait mode as there are more controls for the user. At the top of each entry is a back button to return the user to the main index. An Export icon allows email, share on Facebook and Bookmark, for those entries that are likely to be needed over and over.

On the entry panel itself, are two arrows (to left and right) for the previous and next dictionary entries. There are also two pale icons: a page with a corner turned, and a book. The page icon is for adding notes, so a user can make personal annotations to the definition. This would be attractive in many of the other Bloomsbury Dictionaries (above). When a note is made or a Bookmark created, the pale icons change colour to indicate this.

dictionary dictionary

Below the panel are four tool for access to other features: All Entries, which is the default when the app opens and displays the complete index; Bookmarks, listing any and all so marked and providing a quick link to the entry; History, which gives a chronological list of the last 100 entries examined (last is first), each with a quick access. At the top of the History panel is Edit, allowing the list to be winnowed. At the bottom there is also an "i" icon, marked "About" giving a panel of information about the publisher and a Help button that opens Safari and links to the Lexicon Apps website.

The app does not need access to the Internet for normal operations. I tested this by putting the iPhone into Airplane Mode and checking a number of dictionary entries, including several of the hyperlinks. Each access request was instant.


At $6.99 some may not want to download such a dictionary: all online anyway, eh? That depends, of course, if online is accessible at the time it is needed. The content is broad and, apart from a well-made app, this is what we pay for. I did find some of the entries a little brief although those I examined were always correct. For some -- in computing and the 11 other areas that these apps cover -- that may be worth paying for.

I would hope that the developers have more of these dictionaries waiting in the wings, for example, medicine and engineering are both specialist areas that would benefit from such reference apps. I would also expect that as information is updated or revised, so the apps are updated as well. I must admit still being tempted by the Dictionary on Wine.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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