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The word-wise OWLS of Oxford

The other day, in the gracious building where the Oxford English Dictionary is compiled, the phone rang. It was a caller from New Zealand wondering if the dictionary's editor could tell him if the word ''vee'' was acceptable in a game of Scrabble.

Far from complaining that someone odd in the Antipodes was asking a silly question, R. W. Burchfield and his staff smiled and told the caller that, yes, ''vee'' was perfectly all right.

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''It is all in the day's work,'' Dr. Burchfield said. For the OED now has a hotline telephone service, helping word-worriers with difficult definitions.

By dialing Oxford (code 0865) 56767, callers around the globe can penetrate the treasure house of the ''great dictionary'' and obtain help with words or pronunciations that baffle them.

The new service, called the Oxford Word and Language Service (OWLS), has Dr. Burchfield's phone and those of his staff ringing between 20 and 30 times a day. But he is slightly apprehensive about the growing success of OWLS. If the number of calls continues to increase, more staff may have to be mustered to cope with the lexical hotline's traffic.

Dr. Burchfield became known in Britain some years ago when the British Broadcasting Corporation recruited him to rule on the standards of broadcast English. The BBC got a fairly high rating, though a few broadcasters were castigated for careless English.

In his role at OWLS, he still advises on pronunciation and usage. Several callers, for example, have wanted to know how to pronounce ''forehead.'' Burchfield prefers ''forred.'' ''Controversy'' should be pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

OWLS is partly a promotional enterprise, partly a ''social service,'' the editor says. It is a free service for the general public, except of course for the cost of the phone call.

Two categories of people who will not be able to use the service without strings attached are lawyers, who will have to pay, and schoolchildren seeking help with class projects. They will be advised to consult a dictionary - preferably the OED.

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