Stop the presses – the end of the printed dictionary

Posted by on November 05, 2012

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.

Comments (27)
  • [...] Michael Rundell‘s blog post  and  ‘The Macmillan Dictionary is going places‘video will be available from 5 November. Michael Rundell is available for interviews. [...]

    Posted by Stop the Press: Dictionary No Longer a Page-turner « Mary Norwood Blog on 5th November, 2012
  • I certainly understand the reasoning behind that but for people like me who write professionally, there will always be a need for a printed dictionary. . .we search for new words and yes, surprisingly we read other words in the dictionary – not just those we’ve looked up.

    Posted by Jackie Smith on 5th November, 2012
  • [...] die Druckerpressen an“, liest man heute im Blog des Wörterbuchverlags Macmillan. Klingt dramatisch, und ist es auch. Denn nach fast 150 Jahren [...]

    Posted by e-book-news.de » “Stop the presses”: Macmillan stellt Druck von Wörterbüchern ein on 5th November, 2012
  • [...] more about the End of the Macmillan Dictionary in Print (via the Macmillan Dictionary Blog)  and this News [...]

    Posted by Say Goodbye to Print: Macmillan Dictionaries to Be Online Only | LJ INFOdocket on 5th November, 2012
  • As a fellow professional writer, Jackie, I disagree.

    I don’t think Macmillan is implying that people don’t read the dictionary or that people no longer need to search for new words–in fact, I’m pretty sure the company and its revenue is counting on it. I think the company is simply offering the ability to do so online, where the vast majority of its customers are. (Or am I wrong? Is there not a way to accomplish all the actions you mention on the website?)

    It’s not as if books are going out of print or the written word is suffering. In fact, I’d make the argument that the written word is thriving through changes like this that allow it to keep pace with an increasingly digital publishing and printing environment.

    Posted by Kenlyn on 5th November, 2012
  • You say “But probably the biggest benefit of being online is that the dictionary is always up to date”. Well, that would certainly be a benefit if it were true, but, alas, it isn’t. In December 2010 I commented via the message box on your website that your definition for Inland Revenue (namely, “the government organization responsible for collecting taxes in the UK”) was out of date. The government organization responsible for collecting taxes in the UK has been called HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC for short) since 2005, when Inland Revenue merged with HM Customs and Excise. A Macmillan employee replied and said (I’m copying and pasting here) “yes, you’re right. We need to update that entry. We should also check any other government department names”. Well, the entry was not updated – it’s now even more out of date – 7 years out of date in fact.
    http://virtuallinguist.typepad.com/the_virtual_linguist/2012/11/macmillan-dictionaries-to-go-digital.html

    Posted by Virtual Linguist on 5th November, 2012
  • [...] focalizzarci sulla nostra collezione di risorse digitali, ricca e in espansione”: è l’annuncio che arriva dal blog del dizionario Macmillan, tra i più noti e consultati per [...]

    Posted by Macmillan, addio al dizionario di carta | infropy - information entropy on 6th November, 2012
  • virtuallinguist: I think I was the employee in question, and it looks as though the HMRC slipped through the net. I’m afraid these things happen sometimes and I can only apologise, I’ve checked the other departments, and there’s at least one other that we’ll need to fix. These changes will be implemented at the next opportunity.
    Thanks for the reminder.

    Posted by Stephen on 6th November, 2012
  • I find myself agreeing with the author to a point. Crowdsourcing is the wrong tool to build a dictionary. One thing is to invoke inclusion of a word in a dictionary because of popular or frequent usage. Trusting in a collective (users) to build a dictionary entry is quite another. Lexicography is no science, but it’s a craft that takes years to develop, like any other writing skill.

    I believe that the whole point of this exercise about not printing more dictionaries by MacMillan is an economic issue. Paper costs money while online resources are far cheaper.

    Posted by Mario Chávez on 6th November, 2012
  • Mario: crowd-sourcing feeds the Open Dictionary, where users submit their own suggested entries. But these entries are filtered by Macmillan lexicographers, people with precisely the skills you value. Many submissions to the Open Dictionary are rejected on the grounds that they are entirely made up and do not reflect actual use. Others are accepted, but edited to a small degree to get rid of any grammatical or factual errors and to ensure that the wording is unambiguous. When we update the main dictionary, we write new entries, and also take some from the Open Dictionary, but we rewrite them to fit our dictionary style. And we don’t take them all. Some are ephemeral and are unlikely to live long in the language and others are marginal. So the entries are not built by a collective; they are submitted by a collective but refined by professionals.

    It’s true that paper dictionaries cost money to print, but paper dictionaries cost money to buy, and for the last three and a half years people have had the option to use the free version of the dictionary online. They’ve been doing this, literally in their millions. The demand for digital resources is growing while the demand for print dictionaries is diminishing.

    Posted by Stephen on 6th November, 2012
  • [...] power, smirting, andmumpreneur – and this has huge advantages for our users.Link to the rest at Macmillan Dictionary BlogClick to Tweet/Email/Share This Post wpa2a.script_load(); Books in GeneralNo Comments to [...]

    Posted by Stop the presses – the end of the printed dictionary | The Passive Voice on 6th November, 2012
  • [...] more: macmillandictionaryblog.com [...]

    Posted by P U B L I S H I N G » Blog Archive » Stop the presses – the end of the printed dictionary on 7th November, 2012
  • [...] dictionaries are traditionally updated every four to five years, he added, but language will have developed in the interim. “Think of all the new vocabulary that came [...]

    Posted by Macmillan Dictionary to go digital after publisher announces final print editions | Book Reviews and Ideas on 8th November, 2012
  • [...] The MacMillain Dictionary has decided to phase out print editions in favour of its electronic services [...]

    Posted by Friday Fry-Up — Speakeasy on 9th November, 2012
  • [...] Michael Rundell‘s blog post  and  ‘The Macmillan Dictionary is going places‘video will be available from 5 November. Michael Rundell is available for interviews. [...]

    Posted by Stop the Press: Dictionary No Longer a Page-turner | wptest on 11th November, 2012
  • [...] of Macmillan Dictionaries, found with “tinged with regret,” Macmillan is taking a more positive view: “[E]xiting print is a moment of liberation, because at last our dictionaries have found their [...]

    Posted by On Election Day, Nate Silver, the Macmillan Dictionary and NaNoWriMo Day 9 « Project Chiron (Beta) on 12th November, 2012
  • [...] of Macmillan Dictionaries, found with “tinged with regret,” Macmillan is taking a more positive view: “[E]xiting print is a moment of liberation, because at last our dictionaries have found their [...]

    Posted by On Election Day, Nate Silver, Macmillan Dictionary and NaNoWriMo Day 9 « Project Chiron (Beta) on 12th November, 2012
  • Still printing dictionary is available, but it is not that much a requirement now. Because online dictionaries are always up to date and also in regular interval. But for printing dictionary, you must wait for its next edition to lunch. So it is the drawback of the printing dictionary.

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    Posted by Alan on 12th November, 2012
  • [...] Michael Rundell‘s blog post  and  ‘The Macmillan Dictionary is going places‘video will be available from 5 November. Michael Rundell is available for interviews. [...]

    Posted by Stop the Press: Dictionary No Longer a Page-turner - PR-Portal.com on 14th November, 2012
  • I love Macmillan online, but I still believe paper dictionaries are irreplaceable, for it’s the only medium that works under any circumstance, condition and at any place: with or without batteries/electricity/radio magnetic waves; in the living room/kitchen/bathroom; during war/peace…

    I wouldn’t like to depend on elements beyond my control such as power sources and internet connections to be able to look up a word.

    Posted by Nivea on 14th November, 2012
  • [...] dictionary news, Macmillan Dictionary announced that they will be going completely digital, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the owner of the American Heritage Dictionary, has acquired [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Election, WOTY, and terrifying origins | Wordnik on 16th November, 2012
  • [...] In “Stop the presses—the end of the printed dictionary,” editor-in-chief Michael Rundell writes: “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.” Rundell also counts audio pronunciations and always being up to date as benefits of going digital. Read the complete post. [...]

    Posted by Macmillan English Dictionary stops presses « West Coast Editor on 19th November, 2012
  • [...] Rundell also counts audio pronunciations and always being up to date as benefits of going digital.Read the complete post or watch the video that appears at the bottom of this page and read the associated comments [...]

    Posted by Macmillan Dictionary stops presses « West Coast Editor on 19th November, 2012
  • [...] in altro campo, ha fatto la stessa scelta. Si parla di dizionari, e ad aver fatto il salto è Macmillan Dictionary: “abbiamo preso la decisione di eliminare gradualmente i dizionari stampati, e di concentrarci [...]

    Posted by Spigolature – Dizionari che lasciano la carta | La Voce dei Librai on 26th November, 2012
  • We love digital-anything now, not because it’s up to date but because it’s free – though we would be naive to suppose that it will be free for ever. Once the traditional formats have been driven to the wall, companies like Macmillan will begn to charge for what will be (in my opinion) an inferior product.
    Online dictionaries have their uses, but I shall always have a printed version by my side, even if it gets to be 50 years (not four or five) out of date.

    Posted by Keith Rossiter on 5th January, 2013
  • [...] Rundell, M. (2012) Stop the presses – the end of the print dictionary http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/bye-print-dictionary [...]

    Posted by Death of the print dictionary? « Unplanned on 19th January, 2013
  • [...] English Dictionary, headlines screamed the end of the English language. In 2012, publishing giant Macmillan said it, too, would cease printing all dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster has invested heavily in [...]

    Posted by List of Obsolete Technology: 10 Things You Don't Need in 2013 on 4th March, 2013
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