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October 3, 2002 - Wordtree Reverse Dictionary - 2002-10-03

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": October 3, 2002
Rebroadcast on VOA News Now: October 6, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- The Wordtree. It's a reverse dictionary that, through a series of "branchings," takes you from an idea to a precise verb. An anthropologist named Henry Burger is the publisher. He says it's different from using a thesaurus, like Roget's, to find words with similar or opposite meanings. The Wordtree works on the slight differences between words.

BURGER: "For example, the difference between, let's say, 'escort' and 'chaperone' is probably something like 'respectable,' because chaperoning adds the moral implication to escorting. So The Wordtree would show escort on the E pages, 'escort and respectablize equal chaperone' -- by the way, there really is a verb, I didn't make that up, 'respectablize' -- then on the R page it would say 'respectablize while escorting equals chaperone.' On the C page, it would say 'chaperone equals escort and respectablize.' So we differentiate by the nuances, the opposite of Roget -- that's a brilliant book, I'm certainly not criticizing it."

AA: "Do you have any other examples of words with such nuancing?"

BURGER: "Surely. Take one like 'to enlarge and develop equals to grow,' 'to grow and to complete equals to mature.' And we've done this with the entire English language, the verbs, which represent actions. We've done this with the 21-or-so-thousand English verbs, so if you're looking for a precise word, you think of any part of the idea, look it up alphabetically and it presents a menu to you right there."

AA: Henry Burger is now at work on a second edition of The Wordtree, first published in 1984. He says it grew out of his work as an anthropologist, studying social engineering. He was trying to discover the factors that cause success or failure in sensitive situations, where opposing sides are bargaining and trying to convince the other side.

BURGER: "The government of, let's say, Peru wanted to move villages out of this area and they succeeded by doing the following. And I had about five-thousand summary sheets, about five-thousand cases of success and failure, and I was looking for principles. One day, when I felt I was pretty near the end of my knowledge there, I started spreading them out on a bed and they ran onto a second bed, and then they were -- enough were there that I felt I should be able to divine something from them.

"I looked at them and instantly it appeared to me that the successful method was a process, not a structure like corn or maize or a structure like some bureaucracy but the process let's say of persuading, the process of let's say moving, the process of razzle-dazzling. Whatever it was, the process name -- which in English is the transitive verb -- was the key to it, and once you do that, you overskip country names and food names and so on, you get a world of action."

RS: "So how do you hope The Wordtree is used in ... "

AA: "Who is using it already?"

RS: "Who is using it?"

BURGER: "A lot of large companies and government offices. We've had orders from Europe and so on. Probably the poor, downtrodden person who really needs it most cannot get to it, but at least his state library may well have it."

AA: Henry Burger is an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri and publisher of The Wordtree, which, if you're wondering, is one-hundred-forty-nine dollars a copy.

And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our Web site is And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.