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Kaufmann, U. and H. Bergenholtz et al. (1998): Encyclopedic Dictionary of Gene Technology, vol. 1, English (with Spanish equivalents), 385 p. vol. 2, Spanish (with English equivalents). Toronto, Lugus Libros, 411 p.

  • John Humbley

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  • John Humbley
    Université Paris 7, Paris, France

Article body

Four years is a long time to wait for the review of any dictionary, especially one dealing with a field as new and as rapidly developing as gene technology. One of the banes of specialised lexicography is that dictionaries are often put out by small publishers who have no means of promoting them, with the result that useful work too often goes unnoticed. This seems to be the case of the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Gene Technology, as the present reviewer has no knowledge of any mention being made in the major lexicography journals.

In spite of the delay, it is still worthwhile to present this dictionary since it incorporates several original features, which its authors claim to be important lexicographical innovations. The present English-Spanish dictionary is in fact an adaptation of a previous Danish-English dictionary [1], put out by the principal authors in 1992, and which created quite a sensation at the time in Denmark. The Danish dictionary was presented as a prototype of the way that specialised lexicography should perform according to the precepts laid down by Bergenholtz and Tarp [2] (one of the co-authors of the English-Spanish version). Part of the polemics concerned the claim that specialised lexicography was user-centred, whereas terminology was subject-centred, and thus less easily accessible. In the Danish dictionary, great pains were taken to define the potential users and their needs, with some unusual though perfectly justified results. One of these was the use of the two languages: since the user was assumed to be a Danish and not an English speaker, encyclopedic information was given exclusively in Danish, though English figured not only in equivalents, but also in many collocations, designed to help Danes who wanted not only to read English-language texts on the subject, but also to write in that language.

This unbalance of languages is not present in the English-Spanish dictionary, or at least not in the same form, but most of the other original features are. One of these features is the basic structure of the dictionary itself. In addition to a preface and a section giving information on how and why the dictionary was made, there is a particularly important “Guide to the Use of the Dictionary” and a comprehensive introduction to molecular biology which precede the alphabetical core, consisting of some 4,500 headwords in both languages, which compares favorably to the 6,000 entries of a monolingual specialist dictionary [3].

The preface lays out the basic objectives of the dictionary, underlining its interdisciplinary nature (the two main authors are respectively a biologist and a lexicographer). “Background Information” lists targeted user groups and needs to which the dictionary is intended and explains how it came into being and what corpora were drawn on. The sources appear in the form of an exhaustive bibliography.

Many dictionaries contain guides or instructions for use, though most authors are under little illusion about how many users actually read them. The Gene Technology Dictionary sets out the structure of the dictionary, and in passing justifies some of the lexicographical choices made. For example, under “Encyclopedic notes” the authors state:

“This heading refers to the part of the dictionary article which is also called definition. However, the term “definition” presupposes a far more exact and detailed description than is possible in a specialised dictionary for non-specialists. Thus, we prefer the term “encyclopedic note”, which usually consists of whole sentences in this dictionary.” The qualification of encylopedic is justified by extensive development in some of the articles. The use of examples and collocations is also explained: the latter are particularly abundant and contain many verb phrases, too often omitted from dictionaries.

A couple of criteria of inclusion are also indicated in this section, in particular the choice to use translated examples for Spanish, rather than original attestations as is the English.

As the authors are at pains to point out in the introduction, the most original part of the dictionary is possibly the introduction to the subject, though this is not unknown in other dictionaries of various tendencies. In forty-odd closely printed pages the reader is presented with the basics of microbiology, DNA and gene technology and the ethics involved in gene technology. This section is illustrated with tables and structures of the entities described, and a couple of schemata to indicate how knowledge about the field has evolved, but there are generally few purely didactic illustrations. In spite of the presentation, which is predictably dry due to the extreme compression, it is obviously very useful to the reader to have a potted survey of the field. Like the previous section, the reader is supposed to read this introduction before actually using the dictionary proper, as there are no cross references from the dictionary part back to the presentation, though terms dealt with in the dictionary section are printed in bold in the introduction. A hypertextual form would obviously be the next step here, though even in paper form it would have been useful to be directed where to find in the presentation a term present in the dictionary section, for example by a numbering system.

The dictionary section proper represents the bulk of the volumes – 320 pages for English-Spanish. Not all headwords rate encyclopedic notes – many have only an equivalent. There seem to be three different categories of these short entries: terms whose meaning is completely componential (alcohol yeast levadura f alcoholica), less common synonyms, with a cross reference to the term under which they are explained, and terms which are so specific as to be better explained by more general terms. Whereas this last category can be justified – especially when the user has thoroughly read the presentation – it would be more comfortable to have explicit cross references. Where for example do you find out what an alloploid, and allohaploid or a polyploid is?

Those headwords which do have a development generally start with an explanation. Contrary to the authors’ claims, many contain the same sort of elements as traditional Aristotelian definition, though the form may vary. For example

cloning site […] A cloning site is the site in a cloning sector where a foreign DNA fragment can be inserted as a preparation for cloning. […]

Often these take the form of a “Cobuild” type definition, giving the impression of a kindly uncle explaining popular science.

backcross […] To carry out a backcross means to cross an organism with one of its parents or with an individual having the same genotype as one of the parent individuals.

This informal style is a relief from the terseness of the presentation; as the preceding examples illustrate, the authors freely include metalanguage in the explanations, and evaluate its usage.

allele exchange […] This expression is sometimes used for techniques or experiments where one allele is exchanged with another […]

One frequent technique used in the explanation is to start at a very general level, though not from the hyperonym, and work down.


Proteins are polymers of amino acids. The sequence of amino acids is encoded in the gene corresponding to the protein. From the gene the code is transferred to mRNA by transcription. This code is read and translated to protein by ribosomes and aminoacyle tRNA molecules. This specific recognition of a codon for an amino acid involves base pairing between the codon and the complementary anticodon in the tRNA part of the aminoacyltRNA. The codon-anticodon interactions and the reactions catalyzed by the ribosome leads to the formation of the protein specified by the sequence of codons in the mRNA.

This explanation is followed by an illustration showing where the anticodon intervenes, and an example giving a concrete case of its use.

One of the objections raised to the Danish dictionary [4] was that the relations between related terms were not delineated methodically enough. The example chosen was the relations between lipid, fat, fatty acid, triglyceride, phospholipid, steroid, which the reviewers suggested should be shown in terms of a logical hierarchy: are fatty acids, triglycerides, phospholipids and steroids types of lipids, and if so, what is the difference between them? In the present dictionary, the answers seem clearer.

Under fatty acid we learn:

Fatty acids are carboxylic acids found in lipids.

Under lipid:

Lipids are chemically diverse compounds grouped together because they all have little or no affinity with water […]

  Three important families of lipids are fats or triacylglyerols, which consist of three fatty acids linked to a glycerol molecule, phospholipids, which are important components of membranes, and steroids, which have a carbon skeleton consisting of four interconnected rings.

Under fat and triglycerid we find only an equivalent in Spanish, under steroid no entry at all, though there is an equivalent under steroid hormone. Phosopholipid on the other hand has a complete entry.

The present dictionary thus answers the major part of the question asked by the reviewers of the original dictionary, though the question remains as to whether the cross referencing system of the dictionary is foolproof enough.

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