Last week’s announcement that Macmillan won’t in future be publishing dictionaries in book form sparked a lively debate – some of it on this blog, some in the news media, and some in other online forums. The response, it’s fair to say, was mixed. ‘What a sad day’, said one subscriber to a lexicography discussion list. ‘Not at all!’, replied Adam Kilgarriff, ‘it’s a day of liberation from the straitjacket of print!’.
It’s worth examining the arguments against abandoning the print medium. These fall mainly into two categories: practical and cultural. The practical argument is that not everyone in the world enjoys good connectivity, so for some people, printed dictionaries are the only reliable source of reference information. This is true enough, though the picture is more complex than you might expect. The idea that rich countries have great Web connections and poorer countries don’t turns out to be an oversimplification. One colleague working in France told me his students didn’t have good Web connections at home because France has been relatively slow to install high-bandwidth infrastructure. Conversely, David Joffe, whose company has (among other things) published online dictionaries for several African languages, gave an upbeat assessment of the situation in Africa. He outlined the remarkable growth in fibre-optic technology, which will soon bring more than half the continent’s population within 25 km of a cable providing ultra-fast connections – and that’s without even considering the growth of mobile networks served by satellites. And despite some unevenness, the global picture is one of rapid progress towards a point where fast Web access will become the norm.
This hasn’t stopped some of the doubters dreaming up scenarios in which electronic dictionaries might fail. Are you going to start up your computer every time you need to look up a word? What if there is a power cut and your battery is flat? And so on. But anyone can play that game: what if you forget to put your dictionary in your school bag, what if you drop it in a puddle, what if it’s too heavy to take with you on a plane? This isn’t a fruitful line of argument, but it leads us to the second main objection.
This has a number of strands, but in essence it’s about the dictionary’s role as a familiar and respected cultural artefact. We like handling and delving into physical books, the argument goes, and just think of all the serendipitous discoveries you can make as you browse through your paper dictionary. Furthermore, people trust dictionaries in print form, whereas data found on the Web is seen by some as slightly suspect and inherently less ‘serious’. Not surprisingly, this idea is linked to the supposed unreliability of crowdsourced dictionaries and – inevitably – the Urban Dictionary is held up as an example of the dangers of going down this road. But the medium really isn’t the issue here. There have always been good and bad dictionaries, and few people would argue that resources like the OED are any less valuable for being wholly online. As for crowdsourcing, we have discussed this before, and (as a comment on the Guardian site noted), the Urban Dictionary is an easy target and not necessarily typical of crowdsourced dictionaries: you should ‘dip into it for entertainment’ rather than expecting a serious dictionary.
As for the joys of browsing, there are two counter-arguments. First, browsing is even easier (and often more productive) in an online dictionary where any word in a definition or example sentence is ‘clickable’, and when there are thesaurus links from every word or meaning. More importantly, to quote Anna Braasch (a former President of Euralex) ‘most people are not lexicographers or lovers of words; for them a dictionary is just a tool’. If people want to explore the byways of English, well, there is plenty to engage them in the blog or the BuzzWords column. But they generally go to the dictionary itself to resolve a specific query, rather than to browse.
For me, the best thing about the various debates that followed our announcement is that it has encouraged us to think more creatively about ways in which we can exploit the online medium to make the dictionary even more useful. As for staying up to date, Gill Francis’s latest post reminds us that there is more to this than simply adding interesting new words. Indeed, one critic pointed out, quite fairly, that our 10-year-old definition of the word dictionary could do with some updating (we’re on the case).
For growing numbers of people, digital media are now the natural channel for finding the kinds of information that dictionaries have traditionally provided. In the end, as David Joffe points out, the decision to move from printed to digital dictionaries ‘isn’t a decision made by publishers but by dictionary users. The bottom line is, if more and more dictionary users are choosing to use online dictionaries rather than buy paper dictionaries, then it is because they find it an overall preferable experience’. I’ll give the last word to Jim Ronald, who told me that when he took a set of paper dictionaries into his class at a Japanese university, he noticed one of his students ‘picking one up and nostagically leafing through it’, before declaring “Ah, this brings back memories!”.’Email this Post