Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Post-Dictionary World?

June 4 of this year marks an unusual event for denizens of the dictionary world: it's the first time in its 46-year history that the Dictionary Society of North America (DSNA) will hold a virtual conference. You won't have to rack your brain to arrive at the reason for this: we are not yet in the after times of the pandemic, when face-to-face conferences seem like a reasonable thing to do. The DSNA conference will be unusual in another way, however, in that the focus of its abbreviated program is an examination of the role of dictionaries and lexicography in today's world.

To some this might seem like navel-gazing for lexicographers, but indulge us for a moment. Dictionaries are our livelihood! The ability to earn a living from writing dictionary definitions, never a very sure bet, is today not a bet that a reasonable person would make at all. Lexicographers working today (at least, those over the age of 40 or so, and that unquestionably includes me) look back to a golden age of lexicography, when work was plentiful, the English dictionary market was rich and competitive, and it was a rare home or office that did not have a regularly consulted dictionary on the bookshelf, whatever its vintage.

What happened? Long story short, and as a surprise to no one: the internet happened, along with all of its accompanying technology, and along with other info-tech advances. Today the computers we carry around in our pockets (we call them phones) give us quick and easy access to the whole world of human knowledge as it is stored in the cloud. That world of knowledge includes dictionaries, of course, and not just one dictionary — not "the dictionary", as people often say, when what they used to have in mind was the dictionary on their bookshelf, or one like it.

"The dictionary" that we used to reach for to fix or to settle a dispute about the meaning of a word had the publisher's name displayed prominently on the spine. That name was likely one of the (formerly) big names in dictionaries, and over time you probably associated that name with authority about language. Americans probably thought of American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, or Random House; For Brits, Chambers, Collins, or Oxford might have come to mind. Alas, such names (and many others, long vanished from the marketplace) have lost much of their authoritative ring because many who seek a word's definition online or via their phone either don't see or take no note of where the definition came from.

To get a flavor of what it was like in the old days, you can peruse this page, which gives you a tour of dictionary ads from the Saturday Evening Post during the 20th century, when the American dictionary market flourished. Here's a sample ad from that page:

The ad admirably shows how dictionary publishers were eager to implant in the public mind the idea of their authority; an idea that the public happily accepted throughout much of the century.

Even near the end of the 20th century there is evidence of a thriving market in language reference books. This ad, a full-pager from the Times of London in November 1993, shows 15 language reference books — dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias — that you might have considered as possible Christmas gifts for people on your list:

No such ad could appear today: the tradition of giving a reference book as a Christmas gift is gone, and a lot of these titles in book form are also gone.

Reference publishers and lexicographers began to ask themselves more than 20 years ago: "what should we do now?" Many saw the developments in modern technology as a death knell to the old way of life and livelihood and simply threw in the towel. But at the same time, publishers and lexicographers both saw the new developments as an opportunity. In doing this, they were following a precedent that entrepreneurs and imaginative types have followed many times in the past when disruption of tradition provided an opportunity for creativity and innovation.

Think, for example, of what painters did when photography was invented in the 19th century. Over the course of 50 years or so, it became a technology for capturing images that was within the reach of ordinary people. Did painters simply give up? No doubt many did: especially those who may have earned their living by commissions to paint portraits, since a camera could now do the job faster and with greater accuracy. But other artists took advantage of the opportunity to liberate themselves from the chore of making high-fidelity representational images.

There is no question that art benefited greatly. We got the Impressionists and a further blossoming of the art of painting that went far beyond what earlier painters had dared to explore. In turn, those who appreciate art have been able to deepen and broaden their understanding of what representation is, and what the relation is between a painting and its subject.

Is there an analog of such innovative developments in the world of dictionaries and reference publishing? I think that there is, but I would like to think that we are only beginning to see what can be done. The earliest attempts to digitize dictionaries were crude and unimaginative. What you got, first on CD-ROM and then online, was not much more than an on-screen copy of the paper dictionary definition, with searchability as the only value-added component.

It wasn't long, however, before innovators began to explore how internet and cloud technology could greatly enhance and expand the ways that people interact with language reference content. The Visual Thesaurus itself is one such innovation, combining the features of a dictionary and thesaurus with a graphical user interface that facilitates exploration of the relations among words that a book could never offer. And it is only one of many language reference websites popular today that give users the ability to explore words and meanings in ways that transcend mere dictionary definitions.

So what might the future hold? I hope — and with good reason, given what happened with painting and many other arts and crafts — that technology will continue to liberate and enhance the presentation of knowledge about language, and that we will continue to move away from the merely representational and more towards the evocative.

If you're reading this before June 4, it's not too late to get a ringside seat at the DSNA's virtual conference. What's more, if you're a student with an academic email address and a future graduation date, it's free! Just follow this link. If it's after June 4, fear not. The talks of all the speakers and the Q&A sessions that follow will eventually be online.


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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:

Thursday June 3rd, 1:16 PM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Fascinating post, Orin. A book lover of words and books, I still enjoy my dictionaries, but the internet is so much quicker. I used to get out my magnifying glass for my small print OED. Now I just log in. Still, politics has so changed the definitions of words. The new definitions often barely fit 400 years of usage examples, yet there is no note on when the definitions changed, even though they have changed, sometimes dramatically, since my small print OED was printed. In any case, Orin, thanks for what you do. You definitely add to the world.
Friday June 4th, 8:12 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, David! I also still have a small print OED but it mostly gathers dust these days; the online version is so much easier to use.
Tuesday June 15th, 4:22 PM
Comment by: Ali C.
Orin, your posts are so great!
Sunday June 20th, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Elo V. (Fuquay Varina, NC)
Your article is a good start for a deeper set of research questions.Please write an article illustrating how the etymology of a word can now be represented visually.

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