January 7, 2013
You’re reading the morning news and suddenly you’re confronted with a word you don’t know. Perfunctory, let’s say. Rather than ignore it, or maybe look it up in a print dictionary, you just call the word up online.
Digital dictionaries are becoming increasingly popular; the Modern Languages Association even devoted a session to them at its recent annual convention.
So let’s explore what’s gained and lost in the shift from offline to online.
Ubiquitous, schadenfreude, bourgeois are some of the most sought after pronunciations in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Hearing the word is a definite plus when you’re looking it up.
Peter Sokolwski agrees. He’s Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, and presented at the convention. “We know that is something people really highly value,” he says.
“Having an audio pronunciation that’s not some kind of a synthesized computer voice but a real human voice, especially from people who are learning English as a second language. And we know maybe a billion people are learning English who don’t speak it at home.”
Other websites, including Vocabulary.com, offer audio pronunciations as well. Executive producer Ben Zimmer, who also presented at the convention, says the website used several opera singers to make the 140,000 sound files because they’re adept at interpreting the International Phonetic Alphabet. Consider it a grammatical serenade.
Online dictionaries also allow us to tap into the zeitgeist. Merriam-Webster.com does that by measuring which words are looked up when. Sokolwski says we go online in times of crisis.
After 9/11, some of the dictionary’s most popular terms were rubble, terrorism and surreal. And when Michael Jackson died, we scrambled to look up stricken, resuscitate, icon and emaciated.
Last year, m-w.com’s most looked-up words were socialism and capitalism, often together — people grappling with politics and the economy.
Online dictionaries can measure the words we don’t get (insidious or conundrum); the ones we can’t spell (there, their and they’re), and the ones we trip over (affect versus effect).
“People are using the dictionary more because it’s so much more accessible,” says Sokolwski. “That way they can confirm anytime, anywhere.”
And we’re seeing words added faster in online dictionaries: within several years, not decades. Consider some of the 2012 additions to Oxford (which includes the Canadian Oxford): urbanscape, bling (and blinging) and superbad.
On many sites, users can interact by adding their own word suggestions, and sites such as Wordnik.com compile data from many sources, including Twitter and Flickr.
Look up polythene and you’ll also get its Scrabble score (17), as well as a handy Beatles song title (“Polythene Pam”).
And then there’s Google. If you simply enter “define” and your word of choice, voila! Multiple definitions from multiple sources within seconds.
But, perhaps it’s all a little too much information. Which is why some digital dictionaries are offering simplified definitions, especially for ESLers.
In the online world, you also lose the serendipity of discovering other words besides the one you looked up.
While Ben Zimmer acknowledges that, he says we’ll simply develop different orientations to text as we go online. He’s also the head of Visual Thesaurus.com, which he says is modelled on how our brain works, and uses word maps.
Indeed, with print dictionaries in decline, the future is digital.
MacMillan Dictionaries just announced it will only be online, Encyclopedia Brittanica too, and the Oxford English Dictionary is considering. It’s a big switch. It means having to create a whole new business model, depending more on advertisers, and users who are willing to pay extra for perks.
Nonetheless, Peter Sokolwski is optimistic: “It is the age of also. In other words, we have so many choices. We have the dictionary as a book, we also have that same content online or in an app in your phone.
And as long as we make that content available in every possible way so that you can find it quickly and consistently, then we all win.”
Publishers, advertisers, and especially us, the users. More than ever, we can play with language and learn new words, like quixotic (which, by the way, has a Scrabble score of 26).