Digging into Dictionaries

This morning, I’m reading Jennifer Howard’s “In the Digital Era, our Dictionaries Read Us,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 11, 2013. I’m afraid I’m not sure if there’s paywall in front of this or not.

Just like Google, your online dictionary is tracking your behavior, with fascinating results:

Merriam-Webster Inc. began to track what words readers search for in 1996, when it first moved some of its dictionary content online.

“The first thing we noticed were these enormous spikes of interest around a big news event,” beginning with Princess Diana’s death and funeral in 1997, Sokolowski says.

The royal tragedy triggered searches on the Merriam-Webster Web site for “paparazzi” and “cortege.” When Michael Jackson died in 2009, “emaciated” became the most-looked-up word of the following month—July—and the second-most-looked-up word of the year. (“Admonish” took first place, Sokolowski recalls, after the White House said it would “admonish” Rep. Joe Wilson for interrupting a speech by President Obama.)

It’s a great piece with lots of different voices from different dictionary editors and publishers. All is well, until about 60% of the way through, when we encounter the inevitable:

Despite the Macmillan editor in chief’s argument that digital is ideal for dictionaries, no medium is perfect. Print offers pleasures that pixels don’t. It’s hard to electronically recreate the joy of browsing a printed page of definitions and “finding something you didn’t know you were looking for,” Martin says.

Gaaaah! Gouge my eyes out with a spoon! Come on! I love books as much as the next girl (obviously) and I happily concede that the physical experience of reading a print book has value that no one should feel compelled to give up. If the way you read makes you happier when you read for pleasure, and more productive when you read for work, why would you change it? That is totally cool with me.

But this is not that. A dictionary is a tool designed to facilitate a certain job. In a world where you can update a definition, add a new word, and correct an error in seconds, how wasteful does it seem to print a giant, expensive-to-produce book that will be obsolete before it even appears in stores? Don’t tell me a story about how your life was once changed by reading the definition of a word your eye just happened to see when you were looking for something else. Seriously, randomness is everywhere. The perception of serendipity when browsing a print dictionary page is constrained by which words some dudes decided to include, and how they’ve ordered them. A different format just means serendipity, constrained differently. Anyone who has ever paid a visit to the internet will not be surprised to learn that it, too, supports stumbling on stuff you didn’t know you were looking for.

I’m with MacMillan Education Editor in Chief Michael Rundell, who said that for dictionaries, “Exiting print is a moment of liberation.”


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