The uncertain future of dictionaries

To me, the future of the dictionary industry doesn't look much brighter than the future of the American auto industry. To be sure, people learning a language will continue to need dictionaries. And specialized dictionaries will remain useful. The Oxford English Dictionary, for a case in point, lays out the entire history of English before our eyes; it's a cultural treasure. (If, however, it were required to make money for its owners -- as most dictionaries now are -- not even the first volume of the first edition would have made it into print.)  

In a recent thread, Jesse Sheidlower and I began discussing dictionaries and what they're good for. Jesse is editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary, and as you might imagine, he considers dictionaries invaluable. My job includes fielding regular people's questions about language, so I'm constantly discovering new things that people wish dictionaries did, but they don't. I don't mean to suggest that lexicographers are particularly lazy or sloppy. But it seems to me that they invest a lot of hard work in things users don't need or want.

More after the jump.

In my experience, people want standard dictionaries:

(1) To rule on whether or not a given word exists,

(2) To tell them how to spell, pronounce, and use words in the standard, appropriate-to-use-during-a-job-interview way,

(3) And to clear up obscure points about certain words.

For different but definite reasons, though, the guidance dictionaries give people on any of these points is unreliable. I'll be glad to explain why I say this -- at least, I will be glad to if anyone asks politely.

What's more, I'm willing to admit that my complaint is unfair -- as if I were complaining about my car that it can't fly. It wasn't designed to fly! The difference is that most people don't buy a car expecting that it can fly -- or imagine that the car is flying when it isn't. 

What dictionaries are really good at is describing established words with one spelling, one pronunciation, relatively few meanings, and no level-of-language issues (as in, for instance, are people likely to find it offensive?). But that's not what people who use dictionaries usually want to know. 

So now that -- as I said in the earlier thread and Jesse seconded -- all of us Internet users can find out for ourselves much of what we do want to know, dictionaries' days may be numbered.  
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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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