Journey into a knowledge wilderness


How reading dictionaries can be a gratifying experience in the world of words.

IT IS a monumental endeavour - the biggest lexicographical project the country has ever known. It took more than 30 years, starting in 1990, to complete.

It involved an army of lexicographers, researchers and field workers to assemble every conceivable word in Bahasa Melayu, including dialects.

The result is Kamus Dewan Perdana, a 2,529-page dictionary with 120,000 entries.

No less than 200 million words were processed to complete the project. This is a dictionary unlike any other.

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) is not without flaws, but in the field of language corpus building and lexicography, not many organisations in the world can come close.

The latest dictionary is an extension of Kamus Dewan which was first published in 1970, now in its fourth revised edition.

It was initiated by Dr Teuku Iskandar back in 1963. In 1964, Unesco sent Prof Dr A. Teeuw, who was earlier involved in the development of Kamus Bahasa Indonesia-Belanda, as adviser to the project.

The real work started in 1965 and five years later the first edition of Kamus Dewan was in print.

The DBP was also approached by the Australian National University in Canberra in 1977 to take over and complete the English-Malay Dictionary that they had started.

The complete project was published in 1991 encompassing 40,000 entries in 1,945 pages.

It is to date the most comprehensive and reliable English-Malay dictionary anywhere in the world.

I have a confession to make. I love dictionaries. Indulging myself in the world of words is gratifying to say the least.

Reading dictionaries is like taking an intellectual journey into a knowledge wilderness.

Words entertain, educate and at the same time baffle me.

Dictionaries don’t lie. At least in dictionaries we trust when even weathermen and economists are at the bottom of the trust pyramid, somewhere near where politicians and journalists are.

I am learning a lot from William Shakespeare, who is the world’s greatest playwright.

The last time I checked, in all his 37 plays he used a total of 27,870 different words.

According to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, in all, he used a total of 936,443 words.

In March 2008, the millionth English word entered the dictionary, so claimed Global Language Monitor which follows every word used in major dictionaries of the world.

To put it into perspective, Shakespeare’s arsenal of 27,870 words is minuscule compared to the number of words in the English language today.

Besides coining at least 1,500 new words, Shakespeare didn’t need Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to manifest his greatness.

The earlier OED had 414,825 entries spread over 15,485 pages; now it has become 21,730 pages of text.

I did try to emulate American writer Ammon Shea who read every printed page of the OED.

I was reading the 1,817-page fourth edition of Kamus Dewan.

Even if I read a page a day, it will take me almost five years to complete the task.

Shea’s crazy quest was recorded in his book, Reading The OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

In 26 chapters he narrated wittily the trials and tribulations of reading the world’s biggest and most respected dictionary in its entirety. Intellectual madness can come in many forms.

I was challenged by the late Royal Professor Ungku Aziz to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It has been around for 253 years since it was first published in 1768.

At its height it consisted of 65,000 entries in 44 million words covering a staggering 33,000 printed pages with 24,000 images.

All in, it consisted of 32 volumes, not to mention its indexes and a Propedia that started in its 15th edition.

I found out someone has done it. AJ Jacobs survived the ordeal. He wrote the book The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

Prof Ungku Aziz has another idea.

“Read all the journals published by (the) Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS)” he told me.

The journals were published by the colonial masters to learn about “Malayan studies” beginning in 1877.

I took a quick glimpse at a few copies. I gave up.

I didn’t know about Prof Ungku Aziz. For someone who has studied 400,000 Japanese haiku and 16,000 Malay pantun, I suspect he must have read Encyclopaedia Britannica and the MBRAS journals quietly.

For me, I stopped my attempt to read Kamus Dewan at page 60 and Encyclopaedia Britannica at page 212 of Volume One.

The MBRAS journals are beyond me. Someone was challenging me to read all 2,529 pages of the newly published Kamus Dewan Perdana.

“It is to be the final intellectual quest for you”, he added. I’ll be 75 by the time I complete reading the entire dictionary if I can cover one page a day!

Thanks, but no thanks!

Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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