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BookBITS: Telling the Bits from the Bytes

The speed of technology engenders not only growth in computer performance, but also in the number of words we use to talk about it. Computer terminology may not approach the doubling in chip performance that occurs every 18 months according to Moore’s Law, but it can feel like that at times. Recent years have seen such new terms as streaming video, DSL, XML, portal, WAP, FireWire, and USB. Many TidBITS readers may know these words and their meanings, but what about terms like beepilepsy, stovepiping, or IEEE 1394? If you need to know what these terms mean, you could find out by doing a Web search, but if you want them all in one place, an up-to-date dictionary is essential. Most users may get by with knowing the basic words that are unavoidable, like hard disk, RAM, and CD-ROM, but for those who work in the computer business and care about using language correctly, a good dictionary of technical terms is essential.

Newton’s Telecom Dictionary, by Harry Newton (Telecom Books, $32.95) is the mother of all computer dictionaries. This perpetually soon-to-be-obsolete book tracks all the latest terms in computing, networking, and telecommunications. Don’t let the title throw you off – it may have initially been about telecommunications, but over the years, the book has morphed into a computer dictionary as well. Now in its 16th edition, with over 1,000 pages, you would be hard pressed to find a computer term that it doesn’t define… at least for a few months.

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Avoiding obsolescence is the main problem computer dictionaries face. As technology moves ever onward, it is hard for the authors of a dictionary to keep up. Harry Newton updates the book every six months (there is a new numbered edition each year and an interim update every six months, under the same edition number), and he claims to add 100 new terms per week. So, you can be sure that whenever you buy it, it will be more or less up to date, until the next edition.

Despite the title, Newton’s Telecom Dictionary is more than just a dictionary. Many of its definitions are sufficiently detailed – some as long as four pages – to justify calling it an encyclopedia. They’re well-written, and even exhibit a sense of humor at times. Take, for example, the definition for leg iron: "1. […] What [telephone] personnel wear to climb wooden poles. 2. Worn by prisoners to prevent them running away. Many customers want their telephone technicians to wear them until their system is up-and-running 100%." Harry Newton clearly aimed this book at a non-technical audience, which makes it useful for students of computing, as well as for executives who need to understand what their engineers are talking about.

The book also contains thousands of abbreviations and acronyms from A to ZZF, covering the most common abbreviations used in computing. Harry Newton, however, doesn’t try to provide an exhaustive list of abbreviations, given the vast number that aren’t in common use.

Although Newton’s Telecom Dictionary is an invaluable reference tool for anyone working with computers and language, it could be better. The paper version works well for browsing, but I’d find a CD-ROM or online version useful for quickly looking up definitions and searching for words within definitions. As an example of how helpful this is, visit Denis Howe’s less-extensive FOLDOC, the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which can also transfer searches to the Google search engine and the OneLook meta-dictionary search site. Another useful source for looking up abbreviation expansions online is the long-standing WorldWideWeb Acronym and Abbreviation Server.



I’d also like to see some sort of an upgrade path for current users. The economics of the publishing world (and of shipping 1,000-page books) probably ensure there’s no way the publisher could provide physical upgrades. But what about serving existing readers online? I probably won’t buy a new copy every year, but I’d be happier if I could consult a password-protected Web site for updates.

Quibbles aside, Newton’s Telecom Dictionary remains the essential reference for those of us who not only need to use the right terms when writing about technology, but also need to know precisely what they mean. With this book weighing down your bookshelf, you can be sure of finding and understanding the words behind the bits and bytes.

[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer living in a village in the French Alps.]

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