The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The future of dictionaries: is online enough? (1)

The news at the start of this week that Macmillan are to stop producing paper dictionaries and just focus on their online version provoked mixed feelings for me. I'm not terribly surprised by the move, but at the same time, I feel slightly wary about it becoming a trend. Leaving aside professional concerns at the moment about my future work as a lexicographer and the quality of online dictionary content (a topic to return to in another post), it got me thinking about how I feel about paper versus electronic dictionaries as a user. And I guess the short answer is; I use both.

Having worked as a lexicographer for some 14 years now, it's not surprising that I own a collection of some 50 odd dictionaries of various kinds, many of which admittedly I really never use. On the coffee table in my living room, there's a chunky copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English which I use when I'm stuck on the crossword - a purely pleasurable and strictly away-from-my-desk activity! 

When I'm working at my desk, whether I use an online or paper dictionary depends partly on my mood and partly on what I'm looking for. I have some more specialist dictionaries on my shelf that aren't available online - perhaps the one I use most being the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus. There are also features, like usage notes, that appear in print but not always online. And if I'm comparing the treatment of a word across several dictionaries, then it's definitely quicker to just pull them off the shelf than to open several windows in my browser, wait for them to load and then have to keep flicking between them. And I think it's generally the constant flicking between things on screen that sometimes drives a preference for just leaving a paper book open on the desk.

Having said that though, I do use online dictionaries a huge amount too, especially for those occasional quick lookups. Generally, for consistency's sake, I'll use the dictionary of whichever publisher I'm working for at the time. So if I'm doing some work for Macmillan, I'll use MED, if I'm working on the project for a OUP, I'll have OALD open.

There is also a third option that I turn to occasionally; a CD-ROM dictionary. I have the electronic version of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary loaded on my computer, mainly because I worked on it way back when and because I did a series of talks about it, I feel like I know its features inside-out. I use its SMART thesaurus facility, which is less sophisticated than the OLT, but throws up a wider set of vocab within a general semantic set, which is often useful when you're writing materials. I also love its advanced search feature which allows you to search by grammatical labels (all verbs followed by -ing), register (all words labelled literary) etc, which again is great when you're looking for inspiration for a language activity.

I've also blogged before about my general tendency not to even bother with dictionaries just to check a quick spelling, instead I'll just start typing the word into the Google search box at the top of my browser and wait for the correct spelling to come up.

So, how do I feel about the trend towards online dictionaries? Well, I guess I'm fine with it so long as all the big publishers don't follow suit (which I don't think they will) and at least a handful of quality print dictionaries remain available. As convenient and flexible as the online format is, there's nothing quite like thudding a pile of dictionaries down in the classroom to get students actively involved in looking things up and I'm certainly not going to be firing up my laptop to settle a dispute in a game of Scrabble this Christmas!

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Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

"And if I'm comparing the treatment of a word across several dictionaries, then it's definitely quicker to just pull them off the shelf than to open several windows in my browser, wait for them to load and then have to keep flicking between them."

I had an inkling of the inner conflict you must be having about this news, but when I read this particular quote, it really seemed counterintuitive to me, believe it or not. Having 5 or even 3 dictionaries nearby that I need to flip through to find what I want sounds like a larger hassle than browser windows. How different perspective can be!

This is the second year in the program I teach that we haven't told students to buy a paper dictionary to bring to class. It was simply a matter of convenience. We recommended the OALD app or online version instead. I myself was quickly over carrying that burden along with a projector, extension cord and laptop to my classes.

Not being a lexicographer, I don't share the understanding of how one dictionary is really better than another (aside from some obvious features) or how one describes a word different than another. I've just never paid that close of attention, though I'm sure there is ample reason from your perspective.

Sometimes I wonder if I could live entirely without paper books... When I realise I want a paper copy the most is when I'm writing a paper and have many articles to use for it--the screen versions just don't work as well for summaries, notes and flipping between them, but that's not dictionaries. ;)

3:57 am  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

By the way, it would really help if you had some sharing buttons on your posts... unless I'm blind.

4:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a lexicographer, but I am an ESL teacher and I am not alarmed by the trend, paper dictionaries are bulky and not always as up-to-date, I'm a sucker for online dictionaries anytime! However, I found your article rather pleasurable to read because it amazes me how different we all are in the way we do things. I don't even own a dictionary at home! Maybe I should run out and buy one just to give me some credibility as an ESL teacher!
Thanks for a very pleasurable read :)

4:10 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks to Tyson and Mohamed for your comments, as you say, always interesting to see different perspectives. I do know that I'm a pretty atypical dictionary user!

When I'm just looking up a single word, like most people, I do use online dictionaries. It's when I'm doing more dictionary-specfic work that I tend to reach for my books. I guess you came close Tyson when you said about it being easier when you're flipping between several articles that you're using to write a paper to have them in hard copy rather than on-screen - well, that's what I'm sometimes doing with dictionaries.

And I guess another factor I didn't mention in my post that affects my usage is that I suffer pretty badly from RSI, which can make computer use painful at times. So generally, I'm keen to actively find ways of avoiding my mouse and keyboard if I possibly can.


PS Tyson, yes, I know the format of my blog needs updating a bit generally, with things like share buttons. I set it up way back in 2006 and it hasn't changed much since. It's on my (very long!) to-do list :)

9:41 am  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Doesn't take much time and the ROI is worth it! ;)

2:41 am  
Blogger Leo said...

Hi Julie
Do you know that Macmillan has stopped producing print dictionaries and switched to digital only?

9:50 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Leo,
Yes, that was what prompted the blog post.

10:16 pm  

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