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”