Redefining the Dictionary

Last week at the University of Georgia, down in Athens, some 60 odd people came together for a meeting. They shared a Rare, but not Obsolete, interest: dictionaries.

“We are strange people,” said Ilan Kernerman, head of K Dictionaries, in Israel. “Most people do not like dictionaries.” Indeed, he wondered whether there will be dictionaries at all in the future. The answer seemed to be, Yes there will, but the dictionary of the future will require a new definition. It won’t be a book.

It was the 19th biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America. The society includes those who make dictionaries and those at colleges and universities who study them, not only from America but from Asia and Europe as well. There were talks on everything from jazz in the Oxford English Dictionary to lexicography in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), from the Big Apple of New York City to the 19th-century Hobson-Jobson dictionary of English in India. But among more than 30 such talks, there was a common thread: Dictionaries aren’t what they used to be. And they aren’t yet what they are going to be.

“The dictionary” is going out of print and into the World Wide Web at an ever-increasing rate. The great Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has been only online for some time now, and we learned that the long-anticipated updating of Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the great “Unabridged,” is at last available as Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionaryalso online only.

So far so good. Online, these and many other dictionaries are more useful and accessible than they were in print. But the question remains, why bother to look in a dictionary at all when you can type your word in a Google search and get an encyclopedic answer from Wikipedia? Or if you want to use “the dictionary,” why not always go to Is there any other choice?

There is, of course, but getting the public to know it and then giving the public reason to choose other than the easiest path is a problem. Dictionary publishers are acutely aware of it, however, and we heard and saw a variety of enticing answers, in the categories of more value—and more fun.

The value comes, for example, in dictionaries that tag each different meaning of a polysemous word like set with “signposts,” “guidewords,” or “shortcuts,” so the reader will be able to figure out which meaning applies in a particular context. Look up the verb set in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, for example, and you’ll find the definitions categorized as “put,” “put into surface,” “story,” “consider,” “establish something,” “start something happening,” “decide something,” “start working,” “machine/clock/etc.,” “liquid/glue/cement etc.,” and “sun,” among others. Then for each of these signposts there are definitions and examples of the proper and customary use of the word.

And fun? Go to Merriam-Webster’s home page, for example, and you’ll find quizzes, word of the day, trend watching, contests, lists of words most looked up, and explanations by readers of why they looked up words. While you’re there, you can even take a serious moment to look up the definition of a word.

Still, the era of online dictionaries is in its infancy. The first automobiles were designed to look like horseless carriages; the first online dictionaries were designed to look like their print predecessors. If they are adept enough in adapting themselves, chances are good that dictionaries will thrive in their new online environment.

But honestly, right now, where did you go the last time you looked up a word? Did you even use a dictionary?

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