Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Is Dr. Johnson Rolling in His Grave?

Last week, American lexiphiles celebrated the 250th birthday of Noah Webster — or his semiquincentennial, if you want to be sesquipedalian about it. On the other side of the pond, British word lovers recently had their own Dictionary Day, on the 299th birthday of Samuel Johnson. (Mark your calendars now for the big Johnsonian blow-out of September 18, 2009, sure to be a rollicking tercentennial!)

Reporting on Dr. Johnson's birthday, Nicola Woolcock of the London Times wrote rather cynically of a new online dictionary project announced that day:

Samuel Johnson, the author of the first authoritative English dictionary, said that "in every new attempt there is new hazard." He was also suspicious of writing by committee, fulminating against the "hopeless labour of uniting heterogeneous ideas."

There is little doubt that he would disapprove of the new "democratically compiled," multimedia dictionary published online yesterday, which asks all and sundry to post video definitions of their favourite words. To add insult to injury, wordia.com was being unveiled at Dr Johnson's house on the 299th anniversary of his birth.

Was the launching of Wordia, a UK-based online dictionary for the YouTube generation, really such a terrible insult to the memory of Dr. Johnson? In a letter to the Times, biographer Henry Hitchings (author of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary) begged to differ:

In the article the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson is erroneously identified as "creator of the first dictionary of the English language"; in fact there were many dictionaries of English before Johnson's. It is claimed, too, that "there is little doubt" that Johnson would have disapproved of a "democratically compiled" multimedia dictionary. But free dictionaries produced by collaboration can usefully and interestingly supplement the efforts of specialists, and Johnson, fully aware of both the boundlessness of language and the limits of lexicography, justly commented: "Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."

While it seems unlikely that democratically created dictionaries will supersede traditional ones, it should be clear that there are benefits in having a variety of dictionaries to suit different audiences and different purposes, and Johnson would have endorsed this.

If the folks at Wordia were looking to drum up some extra publicity by tying their launch to Johnson's birthday, then the gambit succeeded admirably. But the whole thing strikes me as a tempest in a teapot. So what if people are uploading videos to define words in their own idiosyncratic styles? (Once you hear British rapper Doc Brown define fermata, you'll never forget what it means!) More power to 'em, I say. But both Wordia's promotional campaign ("We're redefining the dictionary," the website proclaims) and the backlash from naysayers might be just a bit overblown.

Well before Wordia, online lexicographical collaboration has been brewing on "new word" sites like Urban Dictionary, Langmaker, and Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary. Wiktionary, meanwhile, seeks to harness the Wikipedia model to create an "open-content" dictionary. These user-generated enterprises can verge on the chaotic (or descend into a free-for-all, as is regrettably often the case with Urban Dictionary). More reliable approaches to cataloguing innovative vocabulary often involve a single steady hand, such as Paul McFedries at Word Spy, Grant Barrett at Double-Tongued Dictionary or Mark Peters (our newest contributor!) at Wordlustitude.

Despite some reporting to the contrary, the rise of this egalitarian online content doesn't necessarily presage the end of established, authoritative dictionaries. As we heard recently from the Oxford English Dictionary's Jesse Sheidlower, the OED is finding new ways to rely on "the wisdom of the crowds" in this electronic era, as well as exploring fresh directions for its online edition. And as the old dictionary publishers are rolling with the digital punches, the new online outlets often look for backing from dependable lexicographical authorities. Wordia, notably, publishes its video definitions alongside traditional print definitions supplied by Collins English Dictionary.

We here at the Visual Thesaurus are naturally quite enthusiastic about online innovations that seek to transform the power of the trusty old dictionary (and thesaurus!) by using dynamic new approaches. It's what we strive to do every day, and it informs the innovative features we've introduced, from subscriber-created word lists to the always addictive spelling bee. Would Dr. Johnson approve? We hope so. Though he did note that "in every new attempt there is new hazard," he also wrote more hopefully:

It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happiness. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope; and of every honest endeavour it is certain that, however unsuccessful, it will be at last rewarded.

Words to live by.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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