We left off last month on the horns of the dictionary publishers' dilemma: how do you keep a flagship title in print when it costs far more to produce it than it will ever generate in sales? We noted the lure of electronic licensing rights as a factor that might influence the way dictionaries are put together and marketed in the future; and we heard from a few readers who, not unpredictably, lamented any future in which dictionaries in book form were not available.

We also love printed dictionaries; there are dozens of them lying around in the Lounge, and indeed in every room of the Language Mansion — but these days we don't actually use them very much. If we crack open a printed dictionary it is likely to be late in the evening, when all the computers are turned off for the day and our leisure reading has brought us to a word that requires a look-up. We, too, savor the feel and physicality of a hefty dictionary on our lap, but we find that this experience is as available to us with a ten-year old dictionary as it is with one published last month — and most of the words we look up are not ones coined in this century, so the fact is, any good old dictionary will do. From the publishers' perspective, it is not enough that paper dictionary users love their books. Publishers don't feel the love unless users keep buying dictionaries, year in and year out: upgrading regularly, as they do with their cars, computers, and cell phones.

By day, in the glow of our computer monitor, we give electronic dictionaries a regular and rigorous workout. Two of the most useful on CD-ROM, Random House Unabridged and Merriam-Webster's 11th, are committed to our hard drive always open: their unsurpassed searching-by-algorithm and sorting facilities make them constantly useful companions. A printed dictionary, as we all know, is an excellent tool when you already know what word you're looking for. But what if want to collect terms related to blacksmithing? Or list verbs ending in -ize that didn't come from Greek? Or find words of Japanese derivation that are the names of foods? A print dictionary is not going to help you here: except when you're just browsing for leisure, alphabetical print dictionaries start with the premise that you know what word you're looking for.

Searchable dictionaries, on the other hand, supply the tools you need to find a word or words that, for the moment, elude you — such as the ones noted in the examples above. Searchable dictionaries are also great for finding a word that has just maddeningly escaped from your memory. Let's say that you've got an image of this thing (left) in your mind but you can't remember it's name. You know it carries coal, it might start with an s, it might have a double consonant — but it's not quite on the tip of your tongue. A quick dictionary search of definitions that contain the word coal and container or bucket or pail will turn it up in a second: scuttle.

The online competition for paper dictionaries is also formidable. There are of course many online dictionaries, ranging from the low end (dictionary.com, Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary) on up to premium subscription-only sites like the OED, Merriam-Webster's Unabridged, and, of course, the VT. In addition, there are dozens of other word-detective tools on the Internet, some of which exist by virtue of the way data is organized online. Let's say, for example, that you want to know what a credit default swap is. You would look in vain in most dictionaries, online or elsewhere, because until recently these things would have been regarded as too esoteric to appear in general dictionaries. But go to Google and type:

define: credit default swap

You'll be rewarded with nearly a dozen definitions of the term, along with links that will take you to sites where you can learn more. What dictionary could ever offer you this facility? The long and short of it is that printed dictionaries, as we know and love them, are a mature but obsolescent product. This is not to say they're not useful, but the things they are useful for are now eclipsed by the many more capabilities of their digital counterparts.

An artifact of dictionaries that we talked about last month is what we called "dictionary-speak": the habit of lumping multiple definitions in a single one as a way of saving space in a dictionary. One commenter on last month's column questioned whether there was now, in the digital age, any need to preserve fluency in dictionary-speak among readers. This goes to the heart of the topic we began last month, which we might now pose another way: should dictionary publishers still define words in a way that is optimized for human users of print dictionaries, when said publishers can't make any money off the one, and are no longer constrained by the space limitations of the other?

Here's the entry for a polysemous word, foundation, in what we might call an "old school" (but still in print) British dictionary:

foundation noun 1 that on which something is founded; basis 2 (often plural) a construction below the ground that distributes the load of a building, wall, etc 3 the base on which something stands 4 the act of founding or establishing or the state of being founded or established 5 an endowment or legacy for the perpetual support of an institution such as a school or hospital 6 an institution supported by an endowment, often one that provides funds for charities, research, etc 7 the charter incorporating or establishing a society or institution and the statutes or rules governing its affairs 8 a cosmetic in cream or cake form used as a base for make-up 9  a foundation garment 10  a card on which a sequence may be built

These senses, many of which correspond with ones you'll see in the VT wordmap, are variously lumpy and splitty. For an experienced human dictionary user, it doesn't much matter: as we and some commenters noted last month, the human mind is quite capable of parsing this sort of language. For a computational user, splitty is usually good: a computer deals more easily with senses that are split between, for example, "act of" and "state of" (which are lumped together in 4, above). On the other hand, a computer is happy to have lumped together any senses that have roughly the same collocates, and so would perhaps not object to senses 2 and 3, or 5 and 7, being lumped with each other.

It's unlikely that dictionary publishers are going to reinvent defining for the digital age: like print dictionaries themselves, definitions of English words as we know them are a mature technology, having evolved from 500 or so years of practice. But dictionary publishers are acutely aware of their need to retool and organize their valuable data in a way that will be profitable for them. As they do this, Aunt Edna, who uses a Merriam-Webster 7th edition to help her with crossword puzzles, is not going to be very high on the list of people to please. Research institutions, data mining start-ups, and intelligence organizations that need to kludge massive amounts of text in order to learn what it says may have the upper hand in determining what dictionary databases look like in the future.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 1st 2009, 6:08 AM
Comment by: Carter L.
Clarity, and the ability communicate in an effective manner, are paramount in today's world. I'm certainly grateful that Mr. Hargraves, and others, are on the job, untangling the tangled skeins of "modern" English... Well done article- thought provoking as to the complexity of language, and the need for constantly needing to hammer-out meaning, and the evolving nature of communications, especially, words, themselves...
Monday June 1st 2009, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Jordan M. (Newburgh, IN)
The distinction between paper and digital medium may become moot. It seems that display technology may become more like paper in the future. (See eInk.) One may sit in their den with a large dictionary on their laps in the near future except that this particular edition is searchable and self-updating.
Monday June 1st 2009, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Michael M.
One thing that will be interesting to observe as time goes by, is the effect the internet has on "English" vocabulary, as it quickly becomes so easy to communicate with others all over the world.

English is already remarkable for the number of languages, past & present, that it has been assembled from - in the past this was from various 'invaders' or colonizers such as Romans, Greeks, Norsemen, & Saxons; more recently, French or Spanish.

And English is more & more widely spoken as a language of 'common-communication' all over the World. I spoke on the phone just yesterday from here in Northern Canada with someone in Greenland whose English rivaled that of many who live here - Will we all one day speak & scan 'Worldlish', when the need for mutual understanding totally surpasses the need for separate identity?
Monday June 1st 2009, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
While I do find it handy to look up a word on the computer using a very simple program, I still need my 'print' copy for those times when my laptop is shut down for the day and I happen across a word I need to know NOW!

I'd hate to see the disappearance of print books of any sort. I enjoy listening to several of the novels I've got on tape or CD, but I miss not being able to note pages for reference, or make notes in the margins.

I don't think I'm ready for kindle! (Said with a smile, however. There may come a day!)
Monday June 1st 2009, 2:50 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
My daughter and her family live 800 miles away from where I live. I have discovered the delights of books on CD for the frequent times I drive to Seattle for a play date with my grandkids. It is a great way to "read" many books or reread some (Homer's Odyssey for example), but there are moments of frustration because a word I want to examine comes up when it is very inconvenient to look it up in a dictionary. At home there are the online versions and good old paper books right at hand.

The greatest delight I have with paper dictionaries is the one mentioned in the article when you know what you want to write but the exact word eludes you. Every time I open a dictionary I read a bit extra and learn words I had not intended to learn. That does not happen so readily online.

I feel that paper books will not fade away just because electronic versions are available. Each has advantages and supplement one another, and will for a long time.
Monday June 1st 2009, 6:20 PM
Comment by: Jo T. (Hughesdale Australia)
I cant imagine life without my dictionary. I take it to bed to clarify and look up all the words I jot down in the course of the day. It is a lovely big and tangible book. Somewhat comforting, like an old friend that reminds me that life is still real.
Tuesday June 2nd 2009, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Bellcollector
I keep a SEIKO American Heritage TALKING dictionary on a stand next to my recliner. When I come across a word in the book I'm reading I look in it for a definition. HEARING the word pronounced, is a good way for this "Senior Citizen" to remember it.

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