Macmillan Dictionary’s new update

Posted by on August 19, 2013

www.wordle.netIn an earlier post, I mentioned an interview I had with a journalist, many years ago, about all the changes we had made in a new edition of a dictionary I then edited. Predictably, none of the really interesting things we discussed ever got a look-in. What excited the paper was the fact that we had included, for the first time, the verb bonk. The resulting article highlighted the news media’s obsession with new words. And the lurid headline – “Dictionary says ‘bonking’ is all write” – perpetuated the notion that, by admitting a word into ‘the dictionary’, we confer some special status on it, and it becomes it becomes ‘all write’ (geddit?).

Well, today the Macmillan Dictionary has a new update (and as we’re online rather than in print, our readers didn’t have to wait five years for it). This time, we’re hoping that people in the media will see that there is more to keeping a dictionary up to date than simply adding new words. That’s the easy part. Humans and computers are both pretty good at spotting completely new vocabulary items, and these days we have a lot of help from our users too: the Open Dictionary continues to grow as people send in new entries, and it’s one of the first places we check when compiling lists of additions.

But the largest number of changes come not from new words – though there are dozens of these – but from changes made to existing entries. These include cases where a word has acquired a new part of speech (thus, the noun genius is now often used as an adjective too); definitions that need rewriting; changes to example sentences; adjustments to the information we give about word frequency; and even the occasional new grammar code – all reflecting recent developments in the way people use words. Our previous update included new definitions of dictionary and encyclopedia, which can no longer simply be defined as ‘a book which …’ This time, we have revisited words like marriage and meeting to take account of changes in their traditional meanings: marriage can also refer to same-sex unions, in some countries, while meetings don’t have to be face-to-face affairs in the age of video conferencing and Skype. Example sentences are an important feature of learner’s dictionaries, but these can become dated, too. One of the meanings of the verb dispose of  – ‘to defeat someone in a game or competition’ – was illustrated by the tennis-related sentence Tim Henman disposed of Pete Sampras in straight sets. This had to go (it was never a very plausible example anyway!), and it’s been replaced by something more current.

One unexpected finding was how many example sentences mentioned technologies which are long past their sell-by date, such as cassettes, floppy disks and video recorders. These had to be changed. A recent piece in The Atlantic magazine asked how dictionary editors decided which words to remove in order to make room for all the new ones. A Merriam-Webster editor admitted “we do have to drop entries every time we produce a new edition”, so that the book doesn’t become too large and unwieldy. As an online resource, the Macmillan Dictionary doesn’t have this problem – but that doesn’t mean we can just leave older entries as they are. Dictionary users may still come across a word like cine camera, but in the 21st century, part of its ‘meaning’ is the fact that it’s an older technology which has now been superseded.

Over the next couple of weeks or so, we’ll be posting more information about our latest update. And if any journalists are reading, I can promise our posts will feature lots of juicy new words – from attachment parenting to zettabyte!

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