Whither dictionaries?


Look it up (Courtesy: OCAL via clker.com)

I’m always a bit suspicious of writers who nay-say some new development. You know, like television will be the death of cinema, the book is dead, and so on. The latest I’ve read is in an article from the Independent that appeared in our local newspaper. The article*, “Death of the dictionary” by John Walsh, bemoans the end of the printed dictionary (and along with it the plethora of reference books we all used to love, such as Roget’s Thesaurus, Fowler’s modern English usage and Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable. Hands up if you have these on your shelves). He has a point. Libraries are fast weeding their reference shelves, preferring to handle users’ enquiries via online means. Is this a problem? Are we the poorer for it?

Sales of printed dictionaries have been in decline for some time. He writes that:

If they go the way of reel-to-reel tape recorders, vinyl records and camera film, we’ll have lost a substantial source of intellectual delight – the reference shelf.

I’m not sure that this analogy is quite apposite. And I think his arguments are only partly valid. He suggests that:

Online dictionaries do not encourage browsing

resulting in a loss of that “serendipitous joy in finding arcane information when turning the pages in search of something else” BUT many online dictionaries and thesauri/thesauruses do hyperlink to other words, thereby encouraging exploration. How serendipitous this is depends on the sites we click on and how we use them once we’re there. It’s in our hands.

Online dictionaries do not provide a sense of a word’s derivation or associations

BUT many online dictionaries do in fact provide some etymological information AND, if you don’t limit your search to dictionaries, you can find all sorts of fascinating information about a word. Take Walsh’s example of  “shibboleth”, for example. Search on “shibboleth definition” and your hit list includes not only dictionary hits but others including Wikipedia. Click on the Wikipedia article and at the bottom, under External Sources, are further links to the internet including Etymology of “shibboleth” where you’ll find a pretty thorough well-cited discussion of the word by an informed layperson.

Old words are being removed from dictionaries

He quotes the removal of obsolete words like “charabanc” and “aerodrome” (now that one makes me feel old!) from Collins print dictionaries. This is pretty understandable. There is clearly a point at which a print dictionary becomes too unwieldy and does need to be pruned of words rarely looked up. An online dictionary, though, can retain old words pretty well indefinitely. How many megabytes, after all, does a word and its meanings (and derivation) consume? Here is charabanc at freedictionary.com. It comprises (albeit fairly basic) definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary and the Collins English Dictionary, as well as thesaurus entries from Princeton University’s Wordnet.

New words (neologisms) are being added into the lexicon too quickly

without the usual thorough lexicographical verifications. He cites “globesity” in the new edition of Chambers Dictionary and wonders, tongue in cheek perhaps, if it was “invented by a smart young lexicographer working at Chambers HQ …”. A Google search on “globesity definition” brings a number of hits including a blog post (again by a non-linguist) “Globesity is here” which suggests the word has been used by the World Health Organisation, and a definition from the freedictionary.com which defines it as a “neologism for the global epidemic of obesity”. But that’s not my point really. We will always argue over neologisms … the thing is that the internet provides a wonderful opportunity to explore them, to find out where and how they have been used. The internet is not infallible, it has its limitations, particularly in terms of the data that is available to us at no cost …

but, those who want something more thorough, more lexicographically authoritative can subscribe to the great dictionaries online: the OED, the Macquarie (if you’re Australian), and so on. The way I see it, the online world, used with sense and discretion, is the ideal way to handle our reference queries. My previously much-loved but now dust-covered reference books are, I must say, on borrowed time. What about yours?

* By the way, the original article was published under the title “No, we shouldn’t just Google it”

27 thoughts on “Whither dictionaries?

  1. I’m with you re: suspicion of anyone too quick to exclaim over new developments heralding the death of something else. As far as dictionaries and other reference works go, moving to electronic and online dictionaries has enriched my reading life. I think I own a dictionary…somewhere…but I never used to pick it up while I was reading. Now that I have a Kindle with an easily-accessible dictionary on it, and a Mac with a dictionary/thesaurus program I can open up, I look up words far more often than I did when I was working with a “real” dictionary. And with those links you mention, I’m also more likely to jump around and read about words other than the one I started out looking for. I’d say the opposite of the Independent article: that electronic dictionaries are actually making dictionaries more accessible and valuable tools.

    • Thanks Ellen … I agree as you’d expect. The main issue with the Internet is checking your sources, but it’s so easy to double check something if you are suspicious. I love the fact that the Kindle has a dictionary but I often find that the word I want is not there … The last ones were “disculpate” and “poignarded” in Castle of Otranto. Obsolete words not in the Kindle dictionary no doubt!

  2. Nooo, I’m still using the real thing: the Roget, the Shorter Oxford et all, and yes, the Britannica. I like the Roget because it has some expressions which are a bit quaint and old-fashioned expressions, like me.
    IMO our Shorter Oxford is much better at etymology and obscure words; it’s better than our other dictionaries and certainly better than the free American ones online. (I haven’t subscribed to Macquarie Online. I don’t need it).
    It does depend a bit on where I am when I want to look up the word. If I’m reading a book by the fire or in bed it’s a loss less hassle to raid The Spouse’s Office for the dictionary than to wait for a computer to boot up. If I’m not sure of a spelling when I’m on the computer, MS Word with the Australian dictionary installed is enough for me.
    BTW the kids at school were delighted the other day when they couldn’t find a certain dinosaur on Google but it was in the encyclopedia. It may have been their spelling, but that’s the point isn’t it? You can often find a word in the print dictionary or reference book with an approximation that fails you in a Google search.

    • Interesting Lisa. I have the Shorter Oxford – 1st wedding anniversary present (paper) way back when – and a Macquarie partly cos my Mum was an editor on a few eds. but I rarely use them. If I want etymologies I usually find enough for my purposes online and I nearly always have my computer up. Nonetheless, it’s a treasure and not one of the ref. books I’ll be weeding.
      As for Google I find it is usually very good with approximations – more flexible that way than print because of all the clever searching logic they use – so I’m surprised you find it otherwise. But it is a great lesson for kids that print sources still have value. I think that’s an important part of information literacy isn’t it?

  3. Language is in a constant state of flux. Given the plethora of new technology, it’s neither surprising–nor alarming–that new words are entering the lexicon.

    It’s the 21st C. Many things in life are changing. The newspaper industry, for example, is drowning. New systems, although emerging, have yet to be defined. How, for example, will journalists make money when the news is readily available on the internet?

    On another note, I know a retired librarian who mourns the loss of archival material from the library. The library has streamlined their books and various rare materials and replaced them with more computers and even a cafe.

    • Good points Guy … the world is changing so fast it’s logical really that language will change at a similar rate isn’t it? Like many industries/professions over the years newspapers and journalists need to reinvent themselves which is what librarians have been doing for some time now because …

      The last few decades, since the beginning of what we quaintly back in the 70s called automation (or, even, mechanisation) for libraries, have been challenging but also exciting times for librarians and archivists. So much change, so much challenge, so much opportunity. I think it’s an exciting career right now because of all this. BUT I do hope the rare materials were not disposed of? Computers and cafes are part of the new library but this doesn’t mean unique material should be eliminated. It could perhaps be centralised into specialist libraries with digital versions available elsewhere?

  4. I still have a thesaurus and a huge dictionary my husband gave me for my birthday about 12 years ago but I haven’t opened either of them in years because my computer has a dictionary and thesaurus and when that doesn’t work I use the definition search on Google. My unitversity also has the OED online if I feel like really going hard core. When I want to go on word explorations, I go play at World Wide Words.

    • Thanks for that link to World Wide Words Stefanie. I don’t recollect seeing that before. Looks like a great site. And good to see another word googler! (Is “googler” in the dictionary do you think?). I can see my Shorter OED from where I use my lap top but as I’ve said I rarely use it either. And, these days I must say that the print is a little small for my aging eyes. We’ve “inherited” a huge Webster International Dictionary and I love it for his historical associations but where to put it? We need a dictionary stand to make a feature of it I reckon!

  5. I also have a huge dictionary, but to be honest it sits in front of a door to prevent the wind from pulling the door shut.

    While I mourn the loss of things like the dictionary, cursive writing (most states in the US don’t teach this anymore), and huge sets of encyclopedias, I do understand that the digital age is not going anywhere but forward. And overall, I am OK with that. It is more convenient and usually more up to date than any reference book I have.

    One of my favorite parts of Wikipedia is the “random” feature. It takes me to articles I never knew I was interested in. I would imagine that there is an online dictionary or thesaurus with a similar mechanism.

    In regards to the Kindle comments above – I have the Kindle app on my ipad, so I am not dependent on the dictionary that Kindle provides. One interesting side effect of having an e-reader is that I am looking up unknown words far more often than when I am reading an actual book.

    • Oh dear Amanda … now that is a bit of an undignified role for such a hallowed object! Seriously though, like you, I am “overall OK” with the digital world too. Of course, there are always losses in change but usually the advantages outweigh them and to some degree it is still possible to have the best of both worlds (though that probably doesn’t extend to cursive writing it seems!).

      I do have a question though. Why do people want a Kindle app on their iPad. Are there books you can only get in Kindle format? I have a Kindle, and I have an iPad but on the iPad I just use the iBook’s app (so far though I must say I don’t yet read much on the iPad … as I like the Kindle’s e-ink screen better for intensive reading.) I’m just wondering if I need the Kindle app?

      Oh, and I’ve never used the Random feature on Wikipedia … I must give it a go. It sounds like a great idea (but perhaps yet another thing to take up my reading time!)

      • I only have the ipad – no Kindle. I also have the Barnes and Noble “Nook” app on my ipad because my husband has a Nook and we can use the same account. (Thus letting us each read the same book without swapping devices.) I had the Kindle app first, otherwise I would just be 100% Nook.

        As far as I know, there are no Kindle/Nook books that don’t also have a paper counterpart. I use the e-books for the cost effectiveness of new titles and because I am trying to thin out the masses of “stuff” that accumulates in my life. It has taken me a bit of time to get used to reading books on the reader, but now I really prefer it. I actually feel like I read faster on the device and I love how easy it is to highlight or mark a passage with a simple touch of my finger.

        Another thing I like: most classics are free on e-readers.

        • Thanks for replying Amanda. I love the free classics too … They’re the main eBooks I read. I see one that my question was ambiguous. It was why do you need the Kindle app to get eBooks? I have a few books on my iPad without the Kindle app. Is it because you can’t get all the eBooks you want unless you have the Kindle app?

        • Ahh – I get what you are asking. I just don’t care for the iTunes interface. Amazon and Barnes & Noble have a nicer browsing section, plus it’s easier for my husband and I to share one account and share across devices. You can probably do that with iTunes, but we have had 2-3 major incidences with device crashes and had to rebuild our iTunes library from our backup files – not a fun (or easy) thing to do. We don’t really use iTunes for anything more than podcasts these days.

  6. Granted, on-line browsing can be edifying and expanding, but I SO love my paper dictionary and I can’t see that changing.

    (Oddly enough, I looked up ‘charabanc’ on Sept 7th, according to the notation I made in the margin. It appeared in Alan Bradley’s A Red Herring Without Mustard, set in 1950s rural England.) Truth is stranger than fiction…

    • Thanks Debbie for not leaving Lisa alone on the outer! I do understand the love of the paper dictionaries. And yet … I do crosswords with my ma-in-law every Sunday night and for quite a long time I would get out my Macquarie dictionary and Macquarie thesaurus to help at the end when we got stuck. But it was pretty tedious flipping backwards and forwards from the index to the next entry for a word in the thesaurus so I eventually started using the online one instead. Poor Macquarie!

      Love the “charabanc” coincidence!

  7. While I might lament the dying of the printed book, I don’t think I’ll miss the dictionary. They’re usually heavy, thick and clumsy. And I never read it from page to page. Like the tel. directory, after I checked one word, I’d close it. As you said, online references are much more convenient in terms of linking to other resources. This is one item that I’d embrace its e version. And I must say, online Thesaurus are much more user-friendly than printed ones too. I remember I had a hard time learning how to use the Roget’s T. But now, just one click will do.

    • The telephone directory is a great eg too. I almost never use the paper one here … and haven’t for many years. And I totally agree re the thesaurus. Paper versions are so tedious the way you have to flip back to the index to check the next option for a word. I loved Roget when I was introduced to it back in my teens and I may keep it for old time’s sake but I have since progressed from it to the Macquarie thesaurus to the online ones … and they usually serve my needs (writing, crosswords, etc)

  8. I love my reference books, but I do use the online resources, as well — especially when I’m working on the computer. I’ve found that online resources sometimes don’t have as much information, but they often have the advantage of allowing comments (at least the Merriam-Webster site does), so you can complain if a link doesn’t work or a word doesn’t appear. (Did that just today, in fact.)

    However, while I’m more than happy to use the Internet for definitions, etymologies, and (one thing only the computer can do) hearing someone say the word aloud, I still love browsing through my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It’s not just for looking things up, it’s for wandering and discovering.

    • Thanks for joining the discussion Waltzing! Your last point is one of those made by the writer of the article. You can browse internet sources too, can’t you, but sitting back with book in your lap and flipping from one thing to another (and not have to worry about running out of power etc) is a different and more relaxing experience isn’t it.

  9. Thanks Amanda (for your explanation and patience!) … the iTunes interface has changed over the years and I’m not sure it works for things other than music anyhow. I’ve never had it crash but I do only use it pretty simply.

    As a longterm Mac User I’m used to it for my music but as I don’t use the iPad much for eBooks I haven’t really had to grapple with how it manages the book side. I have a friend who uses her iPad for eBooks and I think she finds the interface a bit odd too. Anyhow, I now understand why you (and others) might want a different app for your eBooks – it has been mystifying me!

  10. An interesting article. My Kindle has the Oxford English on it but my favourite it Chambers 20th century printed which I still refer to frequently.

    Online I use the fascinating http://www.wordnik.com which is a rich mine of information growing every day as word-lovers contribute their own references

    • I think I’ve set my Kindle to the English dictionary too … but must check that. I’ve heard of wordnik but haven’t looked at it for a long time. Will check it out again. You can never have too many word sites I reckon!

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