Digital dictionaries

It may seem old-fashioned to consult a dictionary while writing, but I can’t imagine working without a reputable dictionary nearby. “Working with word books strengthens our imaginative muscles, and in turn, strengthens our own mental thesauruses, our ability to call up precise words,” I wrote in Sin and Syntax. But what happens to the dictionary in an era of e-publishing? As with the general trend in book publishing, dictionaries are going digital, including some of the old-fashioned ones. Recently, John Hockenberry of NPR’s The Takeaway spoke with Stefan Fatsis, the author of Word Freak, about Merriam-Webster’s decision to update Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged solely online. Oh, Webster's, Webster's, wherefore art thou online? Fatsis noted that the dictionary giant views itself as a digital content publisher. "The company generates more revenue from online advertising and online subscriptions to the unabridged dictionary than [it does] from selling books,” he explained. This shift from a published book to an online database creates a new relationship between dictionary companies and their readers. Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, highlights the infrequent direct interaction, in the book age, between the dictionary maker and the dictionary user:
Both interacted most with the dictionary itself, not with the people beyond. We’d get occasional letters from people who caught typos or thought they spotted errors, but we never knew how dictionaries were actually used, or who was using them, or why. Writing dictionaries and using dictionaries in the book age was a private activity: What you looked up in the comfort of your own home was your business; what I wrote definitions for was my business.
The benefit of online dictionaries, according to Stamper, is that “you have the ability to see what words people are actually looking up. It’s a level of interaction we’ve never had before,” she says. “Who knew, for instance, that so many people confused affect and effect?" I can’t help but wonder, though, how a digital dictionary will affect (rather than effect) writers in the future. For a writer, getting lost in the tactile, sensory experience of a dictionary is often a joy, even a journey of discovery. (Studies have also shown that reading on paper leads to greater comprehension). Dara Wier reflected in a guest post on Merriam-Webster’s blog how she sometimes goes to the dictionary thinking she needs to "spend some time with safari" only to find that "what arrests my attention are salientsadomasochismsaccadic, and salad days.” While such detours might seem to get her off-track, it’s not necessarily so: “These sometimes serendipitous, sometimes contradictory forays often turn out to be among the crucial fueling ingredients my writing depends on for inspiration, addition & texture,” she writes. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut less innocently put it in a 1966 New York Times review of Random House’s dictionary: “As a child, [I] would never have started going through unabridged dictionaries if I hadn't suspected that there were dirty words hidden in there, where only grownups were supposed to find them. I always ended the searches feeling hot and stuffy inside, and looking at the queer illustrations--at the trammel wheel, the arbalest, and the dugong.” {Kailani Moran contributed reporting to this article.}

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10 Responses to Digital dictionaries

  1. Mark February 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    I love dead-tree books, but as I travel, I don’t have the luxury of lugging them around. I console myself by recalling that with my laptop and an external 4-gig external drive, no larger than a fat paperback, I carry-on the equivalent of a large municipal library. Online reference works do make it harder to just stumble about happily mining for fresh wordgems, but I accept the trade-off.

  2. Joy February 13, 2015 at 3:34 am #

    Although I have fallen victim to the electronic dictionary craze, when I am home I still like to wander through the pages of a dictionary and look for interesting words. However, I do use the electronic versions more often because of the links they provide.

  3. Connie Hale February 15, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    Mark, I love your image of a municipal library in your external hard drive!

    And, Joy, I confess my practice is much like yours. I’m constantly toggling between Oxford and M-W online, and sometimes even Wikipedia for instant reference. But if I’m writing, and especially when I’m writing about words, I pull out the big tomes and spread them all out on a big desk.

    I’ll have a piece on soon that had me using many of my big books. (It’s about jargon, and I needed a lot of etymologies…)

  4. Constance Hale February 17, 2015 at 11:08 am #

    Some readers sent me their comments via email, and I wanted to share them. See below.

  5. Constance Hale February 17, 2015 at 11:08 am #

    Mitzi, who admits she is scared to write fiction so instead uses email exchanges with friends as a kind of interactive journal, writes this about her dictionaries:

    “I do have several, two decaying in my bookcase which I won at spelling bees in the 1940s (I am 76 years old), and others acquired along the way.”

  6. Constance Hale February 17, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    Peter van Lint, a retired professor of Dutch Language and Literature in the Netherlands wrote of his bookshelf, which makes me green with envy:

    “I understand you have a weakness for dictionaries, I share that weakness. I own several shelves with dictionaries. Of course there is the heavy Van Dale Dutch in four tomes, or Koenen Dutch-English and English-Dutch. But also the French-Dutch (and D-F), German-Dutch (and D-G), the 1,250-page van Dale Spanish-Dutch and its heavy sister Portuguese-Dutch. The Dutch-Persian and Persian-Dutch [weighs in at] about 2000 pages, as does heavy counterpart of Arabic-Dutch and Dutch-Arabic. [And there are] the dictionaries of Latin and ancient Greek, not to mention the Larousse Dictionnaire de la langue Française, or the 1,215-page Diccionario Escolar de la Real Academia Española. Oh, and I almost forget the as-heavy Steingas’: a learner’s Arabic-English. And then there are quite a few smaller dictionaries of other languages, like Romanian, Welsh and Hungarian, which I seldom use. I also like specific dictionaries like [those that give] Dutch, English, French or Spanish etymology, or those for subjects like dialects or slang, religion, astrology, rhyme, and more.

    “As to your question about the choice between digital or paper, for me it depends on the degree of pressure. If it must be done in a hurry, I confess with shame I rely on digital answers, but when I write or study without pressure, then I use the paper ones, and compare different versions. But often I check the digital answer with the ones on paper, may I say in my defense.

    “I also prefer to look into paper Encyclopedias, rather than in Wikipedia, which in the opinion of my sons and daughter just proves I’m old fashioned. That’s probably true.”

  7. Constance Hale February 17, 2015 at 11:10 am #

    George Steed sent greetings from Poland, where he teaches English as a Second Language. (I had asked my teacher friends how they get students to use dictionaries in the classroom).

    “I use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition at our ESL sessions. When the student questions a word I refer him to the dictionary. I ask him to write the word down and its meaning. At the end of the session I ask for a meaning of those words. Homework often asks for meaning searches for subject words.”

    “My shelves are awash with English subject books. I present the different explanations of a subject that they offer. This week it was ‘parts of speech’. Professor Pinker’s list is the latest.

    “Please know that many of the library are there because you mentioned them.”

  8. Constance Hale June 6, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    More on dictionaries here:


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