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Stop the presses – the end of the printed dictionary

Umberto Eco recently argued that “The book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved”. But dictionaries are different from other books. Like maps and encyclopedias – but unlike novels or newspapers – dictionaries are things you consult (while you’re doing something else) rather than things you read. For any kind of reference enquiry, the book really can be improved upon, and at Macmillan, we’ve taken the decision to phase out printed dictionaries and focus on our rich and expanding collection of digital resources.

The digital medium is the best platform for a dictionary. One of its advantages is that we can now provide all kinds of supplementary resources – like this blog. The blog covers a huge range of issues, from language change and words in the news, via innovations in language technology or unexpected shifts in grammar, to ideas for teaching English and guidance on common errors.

Kerry Maxwell’s weekly Buzzwords column has been keeping us up-to-date with changes in the language for almost ten years. Its archive provides a revealing overview of topics that have ‘trended’ during the last decade, and the new words and phrases they have spawned. With the Open Dictionary (latest entry: Frankenstorm), we benefit from the input of our users, who have been sending in dictionary entries for technical terms, regional usages, and above all words and phrases that are just beginning to emerge. From abiogenesis to zythology, the Open Dictionary is a great advertisement for the value of crowdsourcing.

Best of all, the dictionary itself can spread its wings, liberated from the space constraints imposed by the old book format. With its thesaurus function, giving carefully-selected synonyms for every word and meaning, the dictionary provides access to a whole new dimension of language data. With features like audio pronunciations, sound effects, and interactive language games, the Web’s multimedia capabilities are made to work for the benefit of dictionary users.

But probably the biggest benefit of being online is that the dictionary is always up to date. Traditionally, a printed dictionary would be updated once every four or five years, but – in the intervening period – the language didn’t stop developing. Think of all the new vocabulary that came with the global financial crisis, for example (when we got to know about subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and quantitative easing), or the linguistic consequences of the social networking revolution (words like unfollow, defriend, and twittersphere): Facebook and Twitter were just starting up when the last (printed) edition of the Macmillan Dictionary appeared in 2007, and had yet to make an impact on the language. Nowadays we can add new words on a regular basis – the latest batch includes outlier, soft power, smirting, and mumpreneur – and this has huge advantages for our users.

Thirty years ago, the arrival of corpus data sparked a revolution in the way of dictionaries are created. Now we’re in the middle of a second revolution, whose consequences could be even more far-reaching. The digital revolution has already led to seismic changes in all areas of the media, including music, television, and newspapers. Just a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. magazine Newsweek announced that, from the beginning of 2013, it would no longer appear in print form. Newsweek’s announcement was tinged with regret: “Exiting print is a difficult moment for all of us”, their press release said. But at Macmillan, we take the opposite view: exiting print is a moment of liberation, because at last our dictionaries have found their ideal medium.

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Michael Rundell


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