Dictionaries R Us

"-"Jennifer Howard, The Chronicle Review

With the spread of digital technologies, dictionaries have become a two-way mirror, a record not just of words’ meanings but of what we want to know. Digital dictionaries read us.

For Peter Sokolowski, a high-profile event like the 9/11 attacks or the 2012 vice-presidential debate is not just news. It’s a “vocabulary event” that sends readers racing to their dictionaries.

Sokolowski is editor at large for Merriam-Webster, whose red-and-blue-jacketed Collegiate Dictionary still sits on the desk of many an American student and editor. In a print-only era, it would have been next to impossible for him to track vocabulary events. Samuel Johnson, the grand old man of the modern dictionary, “could have spent a week or a month writing a given word’s definition and could never have known if anyone read it,” he says. Today, Sokolowski can and does monitor what visitors to the Merriam-Webster Web site look up—as they’re doing it.

For dictionary makers, going electronic opens up all kinds of possibilities. It’s not just that digital dictionaries can be embedded in the operating systems of computers and e-readers so that they’re always at hand. They can be updated far more easily and often than their print cousins, and they can incorporate material like audio pronunciations and thesauruses.

Unsuccessful word “look-ups,” or searches that don’t produce satisfying results, can point lexicographers to terms that haven’t yet made their way into a particular dictionary or whose definitions need to be amended or freshened. Online readers can click a button and contribute their own word lore, extending a tradition that dates back at least as far as the late 19th century, when James Murray and his team compiled the first Oxford English Dictionary with the help of thousands of word slips sent in by the public.

Read the full essay at The Chronicle Review …