DICTIONARIES GONE WILD: Our Works and Days Online

June 15, 2011 § 9 Comments

“Until six months ago I was clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last for ever. Since the arrival of the iPad I am now wholly convinced otherwise. The printed book is about to vanish at extraordinary speed. I have two complete OEDs, but never consult them – I use the online OED five or six times daily. The same with many of my reference books – and soon with most. Books are about to vanish; reading is about to expand as a pastime; these are inescapable realities.”
–Nigel Portwood, Chief Executive of Oxford University Press, quoted in Daily Telegraph 8/29/10.

“Demand for online resources is growing but large numbers of people continue to purchase dictionaries in printed form and we have no plans to stop publishing print dictionaries.”
— Nigel Portwood, The Guardian 8/29/10

Print is still pretty important round here but, wherever possible, if there is an opportunity, we are moving out of it.
— Nigel Portwood, Daily Mail 8/30/10

“Part of the pleasure and usefulness of a print dictionary is that you see things that you don’t see when you’re only punching up one word. I look up what, well, ‘existential’—no, anything, I look up ‘eight-ball’ and I find out the definition and my eye will look around a little bit, I mean, if you’re a normal person you’re not quite that efficient, I mean if you’re writing a paper…or reading a book and you wanted to know what ‘eight-ball’ was that might satisfy you, but if you’re just, someone mentioned it and I think I’ll look it up, you may then look around and find out something you didn’t know you wanted to know, because it’s two entries down or three entries up or you read an etymology you didn’t think you’d read that’s very interesting to you and you say ‘gee that might be connected to this,’ and you can do a little exploring on your own. And I think you’re much more likely to do that when you have the book right before you.”
–Andrew N. Sparks Telephone Interview, 3.13.11

In March I went to Cleveland to call on bookstores, joined in that effort by Ohio University Press’s man of many hats, collage artist and mild-mannered former reporter, Jeff Kallet. We visited the The Botanical Garden, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Fireside Bookshop, The Learned Owl, Mac’s Back’s Paperbacks, The Natural History Museum, Visible Voice and The Western Reserve Historical Society.

Cleveland is a city that doesn’t brag about itself, but would like people to know that it’s more than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that forty years have passed since the Cuyahoga river caught fire.

My memories of Cleveland stretch back to 1975, when I was an English major at a remote outpost known as Hiram College. So, when I think of Cleveland, in addition to the stores mentioned above, (and people at those stores like Liz Murphy, Suzanne de Gaetano, and Emily Austin Rose), I think of The Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, a decaying Hotel Bruce on Euclid Avenue, the neglected Culture Gardens, the fabulous library system, Mark Stueve’s Old Erie Street Bookstore, the Baldwin Water Works, the Salvador Dali Museum, Wit and Wisdom, Undercover Books, The Alcazar Hotel and clouds shifting at high speed over the Shoreway.

I remember the buyer at the Cleveland State University Barnes & Noble telling me he kept a handgun in his office. Ah, and let’s not forget the Oberlin Co-op Bookstore that stood at 37 W. College Street for decades, the current location of Barnes and Noble. Those remarkable sisters Krista and Karen Long kept the Co-op going as long as possible. (Krista now runs Mindfair Books.)

During my most recent visit to Hart Crane’s home town, I had dinner with my old friend Annie Holden, bookseller extraordinaire and woman of a thousand voices, who lost her job as a Borders manager in 2009 after sixteen years. Before managing Borders’s stores she worked for the Cleveland Museum of Art and Publix Book Mart. Annie knows nearly every book-buying reader in Cleveland, East side or West.

I sat in the kitchen of her book-filled bungalow eating gluten-free victuals, listening to her fascinating stories about running poetry workshops at a homeless shelter downtown.

In between bites of rice and lentils she casually mentioned that last February almost the entire staff of Webster’s New World College Dictionary had been fired.  Outrage and nostalgia welled up inside me. I put down my fork. Webster’s New World! The pure black clarity, precise definitions!

My dictionary!“ I pounded the table.

She pounded back. “My friends got the ax!”

“I’m sorry.”

If a conversation between us about Webster’s New World Dictionary had taken place at Borders, Annie might have asked me if I’d like to buy the fourth edition, which is the latest. Had she asked that question, she would have been confronting a major obstacle to selling dictionaries: people keep them for thirty or forty or fifty years and think buying a new one unnecessary.

Once upon a time, every freshman college class presented a new group of potential dictionary owners. But now, the requisite laptop, ubiquitous smart phones or tablets can provide all the information a student needs.

And that is why John Wiley and Sons, the powerhouse textbook publisher with a growing list of trade books (cookbooks being their most recent area of expansion), fired all but two of the remaining staff members of Webster’s New World. Several people had been fired a few years earlier, but this time Wiley, who acquired the Cleveland-based operation with the purchase of Hungry Minds, Inc. in 2001, dismissed Michael Agnes, the editor-in-chief, senior editors Andrew N. Sparks and Jonathan L. Goldman; biography/geography editor Laura Borovac Walker, as well as citation readers Batya Jundef and Joan Komic and production coordinator Cynthia Sadonick.

Annie has known the lexicographer Andrew Sparks since she was a child. Sparks has been a key figure at the dictionary for innumerable years, and is regarded by the staff as a gifted teacher as well as a talented lexicographer. His exacting standards have helped make Webster’s New World College Dictionary  first-rate, recommended by The Associated Press and The New York Times. I persuaded Annie to give me his phone number.

Andrew Sparks Among His Books

Andrew N. Sparks was born in 1926 in Jamestown, N.Y. After serving as a naval officer during WW II, he was granted a teaching fellowship in English at Ohio Wesleyan University where he met his future wife, Marilyn, then an undergraduate. His studies were interrupted when the U.S. Navy recalled him to active duty in 1951. After leaving the Navy for the second time, he decided not to pursue his graduate degree. He worked for a while as a broadcast journalist at a small Ohio radio station, then, in 1956, he was hired as a lexicographer by David B. Guralnik, the autocratic founding editor (along with Joseph H. Friend) of World Publishing’s dictionary program. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language appeared in 1951, followed by the first College edition in 1953. The World Publishing Company had begun preparations for the New World Dictionary in 1941.

I tell Andrew Sparks that to prepare for our conversation I bought a copy of the fourth college edition, because I’d been using the second edition, copyright 1972.  He asks me to look at the copyright date of my new dictionary, and I see that it’s 2008.  He points out that the most recent update was in 2010.

“The culture” Sparks says, “has changed. They want a dictionary, good or bad, that they can push buttons for on an electronic device. They don’t want a cumbersome hardcover, a use-your-own, spit-on-your-thumb-to-turn-the-pages kind of thing… they [Wiley] discovered they have lots and lots and lots of the 2010 update of College Four that are just sitting around, and people aren’t buying them.”

The fact that Barnes and Noble had the 2008 in stock is an obvious confirmation of this fact.

Sparks told me that work has been completed, or nearly completed, for a fifth edition of Webster’s New World, but that this will never appear as a printed book. He is convinced that publishers will no longer print new editions of hardcover dictionaries, but merely reprint concise and “spin-off dictionaries.”

Inside sources have informed Brucejquiller that Wiley announced internally that the Fifth College Edition would be published in several formats, including a printed hardcover edition, with a publication date of 2013, but former New World staffers say the 2013 publication date is not a recent announcement, and evinced skepticism that a new print edition would actually be produced.

Two years in the current publishing environment gives Wiley plenty of wiggle room, since dramatic changes have taken place in the information marketplace within the last six months alone.

The New World dictionaries are currently being updated, and the data for the Fifth College edition tweaked by Don Stewart (with the help of Jennifer Wellman Wason), who, in the Fourth edition, is listed as “Senior Editor and database administrator.” Stewart has been working at New World for the last thirty years. Andrew Sparks trained him and has the utmost confidence in his abilities.

In mid-May I visited one of Chicago’s independent bookstores in search of a copy of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but on the shelf there was not a single hardcover dictionary. There were two or three concise dictionaries, and when I told the young bookseller at my side I was looking for the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, she asked me why I wanted it. I didn’t take the time to explain that, as a New World partisan, I felt I ought to sit down with the two dictionaries together and attempt objectively to compare them. I own more than one Merriam Thesaurus and a 1965 Seventh Collegiate edition, as well as Webster’s Third New International Unabridged, copyright 1981.

I was sorry to see that a request for a cloth dictionary prompted puzzlement.  So, I downloaded the free 14-day-trial copy from the Merriam-Webster website with the intention of ordering a print copy from my neighborhood bookstore, Women and Children First.

It turns out the download of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate is extremely useful. The reader (I try to stay away from “user” or “consumer”) can search the dictionary and thesaurus simultaneously. Reading the thesaurus entry for the simultaneous search requires a second click.

The New Oxford American application (2.1.3) that came with my MacBook is very pleasing in appearance—the typeface is easy on the eyes—and the simultaneous search feature requires no extra key or click. It does not have the audio pronunciation guide included in the Merriam, which often offers two possible pronunciations, just as a printed dictionary does. I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of  Wikipedia in the Oxford simultaneous search option, but I like The Right Word feature which makes helpful distinctions. I read on the internet that version three of the NOAD has eliminated this feature. I’m sure someone out there can tell me if this is true.

And speaking of the newfound obscurity of the printed dictionary, Rachael Levay discovered that her sister, a high-school sophomore, had no understanding of how to use it. Rachael is the sales and publicity manager at the University of Washington Press. During a period last year when her sister lived with Rachael and her husband, Rachael read her sister’s writing assignments. Rachael asked her to explain the ideas she was trying to express, because her essays “made no sense.”

Rachael discovered her sister would “go through her paper and right-click on most nouns or verbs and find alternates in the Microsoft Word Thesaurus and use bigger, more impressive sounding words that bore almost no relationship to the original word and sometimes so drastically changed the sentence meaning that it was not just incomprehensible, but actually wrong or saying the opposite of what she meant (she didn’t understand the idea of a synonym/antonym).”

“When I talked with her about looking up words in a printed dictionary,” Rachel says, “she turned immediately to dictionary.com, rather than use the OED or Webster dictionaries we had. When I encouraged her to use a book to find the words, she was confused about the whole entry — the numbered meanings, the idea of verbs vs. nouns vs. prepositions, etc, that they might also list antonyms as examples. In the end, she never really did move away from the built-in word processing dictionary — which, of course, has such a limited scope that it sometimes told her words were wrong when they weren’t, right when they weren’t, or attacked grammar in terrible ways.”

By including this story I don’t mean to imply that only younger people have abandoned printed dictionaries, nor am I saying that anyone who chooses not to use a traditional dictionary is foolish or uneducated. But, the loss of print may have pedagogical consequences that require remedial action.

All Dictionary publishers have felt the effect of free on-line, or computer-based access to dictionary entries, but some, namely Merriam-Webster and Oxford, have managed to change more swiftly with the times than others.

In the world of dictionary publishing it is common knowledge that Wiley is not the only publisher to suffer in this brave new world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of the American Heritage Dictionary, recently reduced their staff, and Random House once had a highly competitive dictionary program.

Nonetheless, HMH will be printing a new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary later this year. Now available is an interactive version of the American Heritage Dictionary and Thesaurus that includes the same kind of audio pronunciation guides for each entry that one finds online, in the Merriam application and elsewhere. The inclusion of audio must be the new standard.

For the record, Wiley also offers a download of the New World.

Joseph Pickett, vice-president and executive editor of the reference department at HMH, declined to directly answer my question about staff cuts in the e-mail he sent me, but his message was interesting:

“Over the past few editions of the American Heritage Dictionary, we have relied mainly on in-house lexicographers, supplemented with a small number of freelancers and a large number of consultants (including our Usage Panel).  The forthcoming Fifth Edition has been no different, in that regard.  In the future, however, we expect to rely somewhat less on print dictionaries and somewhat more on electronic database licensing and sales, which will shift our staffing needs somewhat.  We will likely use more freelancers than in the past, to deal with specific print dictionaries and subject areas, with few in-house lexicographers.”

Pickett’s phrase “with few in-house lexicographers” is an apt description of the present, certainly at New World and American Heritage, and maybe a glimpse of the future at other places.

As Sparks sees it: “…there’s not going to be a staff, there’s not going to be people devoting their lives to the art of lexicography. There will be, I assume, free-lancers in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles who can, when you have an update, if there’s going to be an update, for the electronic version, they can do something passable, but it won’t be lexicography of the old traditional form it will be some new form.”

It is common practice for dictionary publishers to add free-lance staff during a major revision, when a new edition is being put together, or even an update, but my guess is that the number of full-time lexicographers employed by dictionary publishers has decreased over time, although publishers don’t like to admit this.

Pickett says he will make “definitions and pronunciations” from the fifth edition available for free on a website, while “the full dictionary (with all its notes, etymologies, front matter, and appendices) will be available as an app (which is free if you buy the print book).” I find it encouraging that this new app will include front matter.

He confirms that the company will “publish regular updates and improvements to the electronic and print products, though the print product updates will depend on inventory.”

Judy Pearsall, the editorial director of dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says “we haven’t reduced staff overall, but we do move them around between offices depending on the focus.” There are four people based in New York who run the Oxford American Dictionary. “And” she says, “We have a regular pool of freelancers who we bring in as and when necessary. As we work online, we’re always researching the language and revising the content, so perhaps the distinction of ‘major revision’ is becoming less important.”

While the picture one gets from this description looks a lot like the future envisioned by Sparks, she adds that a number of staffers are working with “computational linguistics,” rather than in some of the jobs required by an old-world model of dictionary publishing. The Oxford English Corpus is described in detail on the Oxford University Press’s dictionary website.

When I asked Erin McKean,The New Oxford American Dictionary’s former editor-in-chief,  how many staff members she had at Oxford, she said “I don’t think the department ever topped a dozen at its height, on the American side.” Whether this figure included free-lancers I don’t know.

Former New World senior editor Jonathan Goldman began his career in 1966, after graduating from the University of Michigan. He explains that “floating lexicographers” rarely get proper instructions when hired by a dictionary publisher, and sometimes they might not be qualified to do the job. He recalls an unfortunate incident many years ago when his company hired a free-lance team to revise a thesaurus, because the permanent staff was too busy. “They did a bad job” he says, “and we ended up having to clean up after them anyway.” So much for cutting costs.

Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski is emphatic that his company has not reduced staff. “Many of my colleagues have been here 30, 40 years or more. Fifty years in some cases,” he told me. Hired as the company’s first French language editor in 1994, Sokolowski is now Editor at Large, representing Merriam-Webster to the press, at public forums, trade shows, and international conferences. He also serves as the “pronouncer” at spelling bees all over the world.

Peter Sokolowski

Sokolowski was about to get his masters degree in French renaissance literature at the University of Massachusetts with the intention of going on to a PH.D program elsewhere, when he was recruited by Merriam-Webster to write a new French dictionary. He was told the project would take two years, but, by the time it was completed six years later, he had embraced a new career he had never thought of pursuing. Although he is an editor, he is the best salesman a publisher could possibly hope for. And, as a book salesman myself, I say that with great respect.

There is no denying that Merriam is the only American dictionary publisher that has managed to do well on-line and off, publishing their highly successful “learner’s” and “visual” dictionaries and devising apps for all devices (Android is on the way), a state-of-the-art website with well-placed (if annoying) ads for candy bars and chewing gum, and easy access to downloads and ebook versions of their products.  (I also encountered a trick ad. When I clicked on “more at eke,” thinking there would be more information about the word I was interested in, a movie ad popped up.)

Sokolowski tells me that about half their revenue comes from print and half from online and digital products. A subscription offer for the unabridged dictionary is featured on their website, just as it is for the Oxford dictionary online on the website of Oxford University Press.

Both Oxford and Merriam make use of corpus-based lexicography, although Peter Sokolowski is quick to add that alongside the computer-generated statistics and examples of usage, Merriam-Webster still finds citations the old fashioned way, with editors marking words encountered in books, newspapers and magazines, so they can be added to the Merriam database.

“There are really two reasons to continue reading and marking” Sokolowski explains, “for better context of carefully chosen examples — sentences or paragraphs that give an example of the word in use that also makes the meaning clear so that a definer need not search through a large number of hits. And, of course, discovering the very existence of a new word, which a corpus can’t do. There’s no doubt that the vast corpora are of enormous help to lexicographers, and we use them. But our citations are chosen to make defining a process of understanding, not searching.”

“…We are open to criticism from the true believers of modern corpus-based lexicography who say, ‘hey, I can have a hundred million words in this database, and that’s better’, well we say, ‘yes, but we use both.’ We use the hand-selected ones to help us to orient ourselves and to find what’s changing in the language and then we look at the broader ones to see the true horizons of the language.”

In other words, the Merriam (or New World or Oxford or American Heritage) database is a kind of corpus that is the result of hand-selected citations.

“…So, if I were to look up an unusual word within our Merriam-Webster corpus it might come up a lot proportionally because we’ve noticed it and we’ve added it to the corpus,” Sokolowski explains, “But then to get a true read of what its frequency and currency actually is in the language, I’d have to go to a natural language corpus and see what its proportion is.”

Judy Pearsall says, “We also have a citation-based database; it’s called the Oxford Reading Programme. It developed out of the original reading programme set up for the OED in the 1860’s and of course is now digital and fully searchable.”

Jonathan Goldman says that Google was the only computer-based corpus, other than the New World database, that they used, and his observation about the use of Google as a corpus matches Sokolowski’s comment about searching through hits, that is, the definition writer has to sort through a lot of garbage before finding the good stuff.

The New World staff excelled at definition writing, and, until the February massacre, employed two full-time citation readers.

“I guarantee as magical as it sounds,” Sparks says, “you get a new word, a word you never heard of, even a fairly technical word, if you get twenty-five citations, good citations the definition will be absolutely clear to a lexicographer, because the context is clear, it has to mean this. This word means this, this word following it means this, this phrase means this, I know what the drift of the paragraph is, what they’re getting at, so this word has to mean this. Well, when you have that repeated in a nice complexly various way, you have the meaning of the word after twenty-five citations.”

New World’s tardiness in entering the digital world has hurt their business (although they have licensed a site called YourDictionary.com to use their content), and this may stem in part from the fact that the dictionary changed hands numerous times in the last fifty years. Since World Publishing Company failed in 1963, the dictionary has been owned by Times Mirror, William Collins Sons, Ltd., Simon and Schuster, Hungry Minds, and John Wiley and Sons.

This tardiness is surprising in view of the fact that David B. Guralnik was “determined” (according to Goldman) to develop a computer database system for New World, and was apparently aware of the importance of keeping up with technological change.

In a foreword to the Third College Edition published in 1988 by Simon an Schuster, Editor-in-Chief  Victoria Neufeldt, Guralnik’s successor (she later left the company to join the staff of Merriam-Webster), writes about the new system:

“It is a milestone in the history of the dictionary, not only because this edition is a major revision of its predecessor, but because it represents a leap form the old monotype method of composition in hot metal directly to a state-of-the-art computerized database and an automated typesetting program. In contrast to the solid metal type that was created anew for the changes made to produce even the latest biennial update of the Second College Edition, in 1986, the database that underlies this new dictionary is a fluid medium that will serve as the basis for all future revisions, major or minor, as well as a host of related lexicographical projects, both in print and on line, that are still little more than a dream…The wonderful database envisioned by then editor-in-chief  David Guralnik more than a decade ago has become a reality; and it has succeeded largely because of the expertise, determination and creative talents of our programmer, Mr. Thury O’Connor. ”

But, getting back to the issue of corpus-based lexicography, it is the quality of the definitions that make a dictionary an enlightening pleasure to read, or a slog. In my opinion, the New World College Dictionary stands up to, perhaps surpasses, the college dictionary competition, massive computer-generated corpora notwithstanding.

Jonathan Goldman confirmed my feeling when he said in a brief e-mail exchange, “I’m not sure what corpus-based lexicography is if you don’t use the usage data in the corpus examples to write definitions. Otherwise, it is just a bunch of examples and you are supposed to figure out what the ‘rule’ is by deduction? That is not lexicography.”

It is time for me to explain my affinity for the New World College Dictionary. The definitions are clear and concise and immediately tell you what you want to know. There is a directness about the work as a whole that has always appealed to me and, apparently, many other people. Below are definitions from the major dictionaries for the word “dispositive,” a word I encountered in one of the interviews conducted for this blog post:

involving or affecting disposition or settlement: a dispositive clue in a case of embezzlement-                                     Dictionary.com attributed to Random House

directed toward or effecting disposition (as of a case) <dispositive evidence>
Merrriam-Webster Collegiate

that disposes of, or settles, a dispute, question, etc.; conclusive; decisive
Webster’s New World

Relating to or having an effect on disposition or settlement, especially of a legal case or will.                                         The freedictionary.com attributed to American Heritage

Relating to or bringing about the settlement of an issue or the disposition of property: such litigation will rarely be dispositive of any question.

Law dealing with the disposition of property by deed or will: the testator had to make his signature after making the dispositive provisions.

dealing with the settling of international conflicts by an agreed disposition of disputed territories: a peace settlement in the nature of a dispositive treaty.
 New Oxford American Dictionary application 2.1.3

Although the NOAD definition is longer (and it is a larger dictionary, not a college dictionary), it reads more like a legal dictionary entry than one from a general interest dictionary. In any case, I  find the New World definition answers most directly the question I had about what the word meant as used by the subject of my interview. It provides a window on any reasonable use of that word, and does it succinctly.

Incidentally, neither Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1965), The American Heritage Dictionary(1969), nor Webster’s New World Dictionary Second College Edition (1972) contain entries for the adjective “dispositive.” When I type this word using MS software, I am told it is “not in dictionary,” and an evil red line appears under it.

I am not arguing that a comparison of dictionaries based on a single entry offers enough evidence to definitively conclude one is better than another. Dictionaries are great works of art to which one returns again and again. Every dictionary has it strengths and weaknesses. Judgments are bound to be extremely subjective. To make a rough analogy, a reader who enters a bookstore and immediately finds the book she wants will think, “this is the best bookstore anywhere!” The following week, if the store doesn’t have the sought-after book, it is now a crappy bookstore.

It all depends on what word you are looking at. You might find the best definition or the most helpful etymology or sentence example in any available dictionary, in print or online.

New World was founded as a guide to American English in contradistinction to the available dictionaries of the time.

”Our emphasis is on the English language as spoken in America,” David Guralnik once said, according to the New York Times Obituary of May 22, 2000, ”and for that reason we chose to call it the dictionary of the American language. It does for the American language what the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ does for the language as a whole.”

Speaking before the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, on November 30, 1951, Guralnik explained his rationale for the new dictionary:

“We had determined that our word-stock would comprise more than the usual dictionary entries. We would devote particular care to the important idiomatic phrases that are such a vital part of English and that had largely been neglected by preceding dictionaries. Thus, under the entry for mind, where one popular dictionary had entered no phrases and where another had only put in mind, we entered bear in mind, be in one’s right mind, be of one mind, be of two minds, be out of one’s mind, call to mind, change one’s mind, give a person a piece of one’s mind, have a (good or great) mind to, have half a mind to, have in mind, keep in mind, keep one’s mind on, know one’s mind, make up one’s mind, meeting of minds, never mind, on one’s mind, set one’s mind on, speak one’s mind, take one’s mind off, to one’s mind. We also planned to enter with a fullness hitherto unknown colloquialisms and slang, the informal and vulgate words that are so rich and characteristic a feature of American English.”

In the words of an Associated Press story, “lexicographer takes strictly American view” that ran in the New York Times  (11.08.1981), “The unadorned blue book, the dictionary used as first reference by The Associated Press, United Press International, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, is the only one of the top four dictionaries in the country to call the language American.”

“I remember when I first came on board,” reminisces Andrew Sparks, “almost the first thing I saw, I was given I think ‘table games’ or something like that because I played ping pong and I played pool and this that and the other thing. One of the first things I looked at was ‘eight ball.’ It took me about ten years to get eight ball so it was correctly defined. Literally. Because we had an editor-in-chief who thought he knew something about it and thought it was ok, it was a hopeless definition…

“Existentialism. Which was a big term back in the, you know, 50’s and 60’s you’ll remember that. And our definition of existentialism was utterly hopeless. Well, I’d had a minor in philosophy I knew a lot about existentialism. I came into the office I said, ‘this is grotesque.’ Well he had, David [Guralnik] had been in the army and he had been overseas, around the time when the French were first starting, and so he had his own ideas about where it first came from. Had no notion of the background in Kierkegaard or anything like that so we had really a flawed definition, very badly flawed. But because David had written it and he was a very type A personality, once he’d made up his mind he found it hard to change it. I’m not knocking him, he was a great lexicographer but he was very hardheaded. And that was one of the places where there was a long tussle before I got ‘existentialism’ for example and ‘eight-ball’ changed even though they were wrong.”

Sparks spells out various words and asks me to pronounce them: n-i-c-h-e;  c-o-v-e-r-t;  f-l-a-c-c-i-d;  e-l-e-c-t-o-r-a-l.   When he spelled out the first word, I worried at the last moment, that I’d been saying it the wrong way all these years (I normally say “nich”). I suddenly heard NPR journalist Neal Conan’s high-pitched voice in my ear saying “neesh.”  So, I said “neesh.” Like the man Donald Hall makes fun of in his sophomoric poem, To a Waterfowl, I was watching my grammar.

Sparks asks these questions to show me how pronunciations change. In the first two college editions, 1953 and 1970, “nich” was the only pronunciation.  In the third and fourth editions, 1988 and 1999, “neesh” was included as “Brit also.” In the not-yet-published fifth edition, “neesh” is one of two accepted American pronunciations. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate also has the Neal Conan pronunciation as the second of two accepted pronunciations. The New Oxford American lists only “nich.”

He goes through the other words explaining how the pronunciations of these have also changed: The “o” in covert is now pronounced, but it used to be a “u,” as in “kuv’ert.  Flaccid was, not so long ago, pronounced only “flaxid.”  Electoral was always pronounced “eeLECtoral,” now it is often “eelecTORal.”

Andrew Sparks will tell you that changes like these explain why dictionaries require new editions.  Judy Pearsall is probably correct that ongoing revision of online content will make the term “major revision” less important. Of course, for those who have never done anything but look up words online, and who hurriedly seek the current definition and pronunciation of a word, the collection of several dictionaries, or editions of the same dictionary, would be a baffling irrelevance.

By the way, it would be interesting to know how many dictionary readers have been siphoned off of other, better sources by the Encarta World English Dictionary included with MS Word.

Peter Sokolowski says Merriam-Webster is the second most popular dictionary website after dictionary.com. Merriam gets 80 to 100 million lookups, or page views every month. You can tell from those numbers that most people are finding their definitions on the internet.

Right now, looking up a word on Google is like throwing a bunch of dictionaries in the air and reading the one that happens to open at your feet. The definition that comes up varies word by word, and one no longer needs to click, the definition is visible immediately.

It might or might not be the Google dictionary definition that comes up first as it did when I sought the definition of the noun “remit,” a word Judy Pearsall used, meaning “The task or area of activity officially assigned to an individual or organization.” This is, as New World describes it, a [Brit] meaning of the word, which explains why it is rarely the primary definition offered by American dictionaries. The NOAD has it as its primary definition, and it may be that Google, as one web page declares, began using Oxford as a source in 2010.

A horizontal list of alternative sites appeared underneath the Google dictionary definition of  “remit”:

Dictionary.comAnswers.comMerriam-WebsterThe Free Dictionary.

When you look up a word on dictionary.com, the primary definition most often comes from the Random House Dictionary. Here is a “Company Overview” from the “about” page on the dictionary.com website:

Dictionary.com LLC’s online and mobile properties are destinations for learning. Our goal: to empower word discovery and learning. We provide resources that create success for users in their schoolwork, careers, relationships, and life.

Every month more than 50 million users across the globe visit our online English dictionary and thesaurus, making us the world’s largest and most authoritative free online dictionary and mobile reference resource. Our selection of online and mobile products are an interactive and reliable source for word meaning and usage. Take our products everywhere and access them any time; we serve academic, business, social and recreational needs, irrespective of age or education level.

We provide reliable, free online access to millions of English definitions, synonyms, spelling, audio pronunciations, example sentences, and translations from our Web properties at Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com, and Reference.com and through our mobile iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and iPad applications and API data services. Dictionary.com’s trusted content comes from 15 authoritative licensed and proprietary reference sources, that have helped define the English dictionary as we know it today. We intend to redefine reference and learning in the context of emerging technology while preserving the painstaking traditions of expertise and integrity that everyone expects from a dictionary.

Millions of spelling, I like that.

In the days of heavy competition for print readers, when millions of hardcover dictionaries were sold, the principal editor of a dictionary would write a forward, lofty in tone, that outlined the reasons why his dictionary would now set the standard for all others.  The dictionary publishers tried to outdo one another, emphasizing the impressive credentials of the learned figures consulted for help in creating such a comprehensive reference work. The print dictionaries of the past also included long essays about various subjects such as language, the making of dictionaries, pronunciation, grammar, and etymology.

The free online dictionaries try to mimic this approach in miniature, sounding as up-to-the-minute and technologically savvy as possible. They are aggregators who rely on the hard work of others over the last couple of centuries, spouting cliché-ridden sound bites to convince the student they have come to the right place. This is not to put the makers of printed dictionaries on a pedestal. Any new dictionary undoubtedly stole material from other dictionaries.

And I’ve just now discovered an aggregator of aggregators, a website called “onelook.com—Onelook Dictionary Search.”

Here is a forward from the competitive era of printed dictionaries:

The standard College Dictionary Funk and Wagnalls

©1966   The Readers Digest Association

Sidney I. Landau, Managing editor

Advisory Board:

Albert H. Marckwardt, A.M. Ph.D

Professor of English and Linguistics

Princeton University

Preface by Albert H. Marckwardt:

The making of a dictionary is both a science and an art. The painstaking accumulation of reliable data, consisting of thousands upon thousands of individual facts of the language; the proper classification of this data; and finally the formulation of sound conclusions from this mass of material—all illustrate the inductive process that is basic to every science.  At the same time, the presentation of information about the language, the phrasing of definitions, and the ordering of word treatments demand of he lexicographer the ability to manipulate the language with economy and precision. The science without the art is likely to be ineffective; the art without the science is certain to be inaccurate. The editors of FUNK AND WAGNALLS STANDARD COLLEGE DICTIONARY have conscientiously attempted to exercise both the scientific function and the artistic virtuosity of the lexicographer.

The dictionary also possesses a duality for the person who uses it, the same duality that is reflected in the receptive and productive use of language. For comprehension, both of the spoken and of the written language, the dictionary offers its treatment of word meanings.  Yet it is of primary importance to find the meaning which applies to the use of the word about which one is in doubt. The dictionary is not a tool to be used hastily or casually. Status or usage labels may throw light upon the way in which a total context should be interpreted, or upon the style of a writer. The etymology, though by no means an arbiter of current use, can be revealing about past use and suggestive as to the connotations of present use.

The dictionary has even more to offer to the person who consults it as a guide to his own use of the language, whether spoken or written.  It is a guide to spelling and to the various combinations, both compound and derivative, into which a word may enter. Grammatical information is to be found in the part-of-speech labels, the treatment of  tense and number forms, and many incidental observations. Use of the synonymy and antonymy will lend variety and precision to speech and writing. Pronunciation serves both reader and speaker, but again the use of the dictionary for pronunciation carries with it the responsibility of interpreting information in the way in which the editors intended, this applies particularly to the pronunciation symbols and the treatment of alternate forms.

In short, the dictionary has a wealth of  information about language to offer, but, like any other forms of wealth, it calls for wise and judicious use. The general attitude of the user is more important than any of the specific and concrete functions of the dictionary, since it can color his attitude towards the language. Let him view his dictionary not as a series of ex cathedra pronouncements. It is neither commandment nor holy writ, but a reference work, a body of data about the language, deriving its authority from the care and completeness with which the facts were collected and interpreted. It is in this spirit that my associates on the Supervisory Board , and the Funk and Wagnall’s editorial staff, have worked, and it is in this light that we trust the product of our efforts will be used and judged.

My main point is that print dictionaries of the past have attempted to entice the reader by inviting her to dwell on a higher plane of knowledge, while the new galaxy of word-defining web sites simply carry the rhetoric of self-help or techno-gadget advertising.

And now, as Studs Turkel used to say on his radio show when introducing a new topic, we come to the work of Erin McKean, to whom I owe thanks for putting me in touch with Peter Sokolowski, Judy Pearsall, and American Heritage.

McKean is famous among lexicographers and dictionary publishers for her talk at a TED conference. (She may have given more than one talk there.)

She also spoke at Google in 2006 as part of their Author’s Series. “I am really, really, really happy to be here,” she says, “because I feel about Google the way most people feel about rock stars. I am this close to writing Google fanfic.” (I used Urban Dictionary to find out what “fanfic” meant.)

She studied at the University of Chicago, worked at Scott Foresman and became the editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary. She always had a consuming curiosity about words, and knew from the time she was eight years old that she wanted to be a lexicographer. She achieved that goal, and is now also a novelist: THE SECRET LIVES OF DRESSES, was published by the Hachette Book Group in February  (See her her blog about fashion).  She is currently at work on a second novel.

After leaving Oxford she founded the well-designed online dictionary, “Wordnik.” The “o” in Wordnik is a heart symbol. The motto or tagline of Wordnik is, “All the words, and everything about them for everybody.”

The following snippet from Wordnik’s “about page” will give you the flavor of this web site. I’ve changed only the font color and size:

What is Wordnik?

Wordnik is a place for all the words, and everything known about them.

Our goal is to show you as much information as possible, as fast as we can find it, for every word in English, and to give you a place where you can make your own opinions about words known.

Traditional dictionaries make you wait until they’ve found what they consider to be “enough” information about a word before they will show it to you. Wordnik knows you don’t want to wait—if you’re interested in a word, we’re interested too!

By “information,” we don’t just mean traditional definitions (although we have plenty of those)! This information could be:

•               An example sentence—we have tons of examples and gobs of other data for most words. But even if we’ve found only one sentence, we’ll show it to you. And we’ll show you where it came from.

•               Related words: not just synonyms and antonyms, but words that are used in the same contexts. Cheeseburger, milkshake, and doughnut aren’t synonyms,  but they show up in the same kinds of sentences.

•               Images tagged by our friends at Flickr: want to know what a pout looks like? We’ll show you.

•               Statistics: how rare is tintinnabulation? Well, we think you’ll see it only about once a year. Smile? You might see that word many times, every day.

•               An audio pronunciation—and you can record your own.

•               Something you tell us. Use the “Comments” pages to tell us something—anything—about a word.

The key to McKean’s thinking is when she says, or her about page declares, “Traditional dictionaries make you wait until they’ve found what they consider to be ‘enough’ information about a word before they will show it to you. Wordnik knows you don’t want to wait—if you’re interested in a word, we’re interested too!” This is an interactive site, not your grandmother’s boring old reference work.  The FAQ pages offers more:

How does Wordnik work?

Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context. We’ve collected more than 4 billion words of text (web pages, books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) and have mined them exhaustively to show you example sentences for any word you’re interested in.

At Wordnik, we also believe that some information about a word is always better than no information, so we’ll show you whatever we’ve found, for any word you look up.

How is Wordnik different from other online dictionaries?

At Wordnik, you get:

•               real example sentences to show words in context

•               meaningful information about your word’s frequency and use patterns

•               related words—not just synonyms and antonyms, but words that behave in similar ways

•               the chance to contribute to our knowledge of English through recording pronunciations, pointing us towards new words, adding tags and related words, and leaving your notes

The exhaustive mining spoken of here is performed by a search engine, perhaps something like Zeitgeist, although I am no expert on the auto-generation of material from corpora. But it is clear that the Wordnik ethos is the opposite of dictionaries as we know them. And from the above copy, comes the most interesting declaration: “Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context.”  This allows a dictionary site to run on autopilot so to speak, without the scholarship, the work of trained hands and eyes that has made dictionary aggregation sites like Wordnik possible. There will be no staff writing definitions at Wordnik.

“I think there will always be a place for lexicographical scholarship,” McKean told me. “It may be just at large historical dictionary projects like the OED or the New Canadian Historical dictionary or the Dictionary of American Regional English, places where we need to have someone really do research so that we understand where the word came from and who it’s being used by and trying to trace the path of its use, because that etymological research can’t really be done statistically. But to know in general how a word is used, not necessarily what it means, but I think if you know how a word is used you know what it means.”

Yes, I agreed, one can deduce from its context what a word means.

“Yeah,” she continued, “in fact that’s what most people do every day, I mean if you think of all the words in your vocabulary, the number that you learn by looking them flat out in the dictionary is miniscule. So, you had to learn those words somehow, so you mostly learned them through context . It’s so surprising the number of kind of really core concepts and core knowledge that we have about the world as well as language that we learn just by living. Instead of a pedagogical environment.”

I told Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski during our conversation I was rather astonished to discover that the former editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary rejects the very idea of the dictionary as we have commonly understood it.

“I think she is dedicated to a new model” Solowski responded, “ and I think you’re right to draw a contrast. You know I think she is saying something that’s new and different, and I think you’re right, we are not saying the same thing at all. I don’t believe that people want to make their own dictionaries, I think word lovers love being involved in the process and that’s different, I think they still really respect a well-crafted definition…”

“I think she’s deliberately drawing a firm line between the older model that she herself was sort of raised with and that I work with and her new model…you know most people still use the dictionary the way I do, they need to know the spelling and the meaning and the history of the word, and so the dictionary is quite a reliable source of that stuff.  I think her premise is that culture is moving so quickly that she can have an engine that’s sort of an aggregator of a lexicographical nature that moves as quickly as communication does, and she may be right her model is so much broader than ours is, but nevertheless lexicographers are always looking in the rearview mirror of the car, you know we’re looking at what people have said to describe it.”

Wordnik’s embrace of crowd sourcing is not unique. Merriam-Webster’s web site has a button for “New Words and Slang” which brings you to their Open Dictionary. Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary both rely on the participation of readers. When I asked McKean to explain her business model, she had very little to say, except that “we are the biggest by size online dictionary right now, which, you know, that has to count for something.”

Let me hasten to add that I applaud the idea of idiomatic expressions or slang in dictionaries, but I expect such language to be vetted by lexicographers as it is (or has been) at New World and Merriam-Webster and Oxford (and others) before it is included. It is fine to say, as Erin McKean does, that even if a word is uttered only by a single person that word is important and ought to be included in a dictionary, or, in Erin McKean’s dictionary. However, most of us expect our reference works to give us a bit more guidance than that. The lone word uttered in isolation may not have a clear meaning even to the person who utters it.

Andrew Sparks is skeptical of the rush to embrace new words. He envisions the future as a Wordnick, Wiktionary kind of  thing, (although we didn’t discuss any specific web sites) in which people have no use for lexicography:

“…there’s not going to be a great deal of call for, maybe new words, now new words, they love new words, new slang words which may last for a year if they last that long. But they want to have them now, and that’s a perfectly valid demand. But that can be handled by a couple of smart kids in an office in Chicago who keep track of all the new slang and turn out little slang glossaries from time to time that can be peddled to newspapers or what have you and that’ll be put on the internet, that’ll satisfy people.”

Along with new words there is also a mania, across the internet dictionary landscape, for measuring what our fellow readers are looking up. Wiktionary has its “frequency lists,” Peter Sokolowski tweets the most-often consulted definitions based on what’s in the news, and Wordnik shares “statistics.”

Although I’m mildly interested in the fact, as Judy Pearsall informed me, “ ‘time’ is the most common noun in the English language,” I am less interested in the detailed findings of computational studies. Henry Kucera noted in his essay, “Computers in Language Analysis and in Lexicography” for the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary (copyright 1969), the word “the” occurred most often– 69,971 times– in a computer analysis of The Standard Corpus of Present-Day Edited American English undertaken at Brown University. I do not find this particularly enlightening.

Call me inconsistent, but I enjoyed reading the essay, both as an example of what the editors of the brand new dictionary-to-end-all-dictionaries thought of as enticing to readers, and because it explained a new method of study to a mass audience for the first time. The inclusion of this and other essays is one of the things missing from the soulless world of one-at-a-time online lookups.

A potentially positive development from the reader’s point of view is the fact that digital publication does away with the space limitations of print. “We have to look in a new way at what dictionary entries look like in isolation” says Sokolowski,  “because if they’re not limited by the printed page in terms of space then we can provide a lot more information and even write our definitions in a different way.”

“If you look up carpel as in carpel tunnel,” he continues, “I think that’s a good example, there are tens of thousands of examples of this but if you look up carpel, yes, carpel ‘of or relating to the carpus.’ That’s probably not what someone is looking for—so carpus, now you have to go to the next page, so, ‘carpus which is the bones of the wrist.’ So, we could easily make a definition that says, ‘carpal, of or relating to the carpus or the bones of the wrist,’ kind of thing, you know what I’m saying?  So, the reason that it’s not there in the print dictionary is because we specifically have a rule that proscribes us from repeating any information so the definition of carpus is at carpus and we’re not going to repeat that definition at carpal.”

New World College treats carpal/carpus in the same manner as the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. The NOAD MacBook application does not require the reader to look in two places to find a definition of carpal, but then, as I have already pointed out, The New Oxford American is not a dictionary for the college market and has a larger trim size and more pages than the Merriam-Webster Collegiate or the New World College Dictionary. I am assuming that the definition in the NOAD MacBook application download comes from the print edition, because when I checked the definition of “remit” against the print version, it was the same.

More expansive definitions resulting from the removal of space constraints should be better, but I also think part of the skill required of definition writers is the ability to work within the confines of limited space, just as a journalist must learn to eliminate every word that is not essential to the story at hand. I worry that ample space may provide an excuse for poorly written definitions.

Andrew Sparks already sees evidence of lower standards:

“…and now I think because the culture is changing, they [dictionary publishers] are finding it very hard to replace people, and their definitions get not only more abbreviated, but not very good, less and less skilled, less and less showing the mark of someone who’s had long experience as a definition writer.”

He does not believe that today’s dictionary publishers will keep new staff members long enough for them to “mature and ripen” until they master the art of definition writing and the style of the house for which they are working.

The online dictionaries mine the major brand-name print dictionaries, but also many specialized print dictionaries and encyclopedias. Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary may carry more definitions for a word than the traditional dictionaries, so the variety of sources available online is at first glance very impressive.

Of course, if one considers the online ubiquity of copyright free dictionaries like Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, (G. & C. Merriam, 1913), The Century Dictionary, and the oft-licensed American Heritage Dictionary, the sources may not be as various as one is inclined to believe. I may have missed it, but I haven’t run across The Winston dictionary that Jonathan Goldman grew up with (he describes it as “adequate”), the Funk and Wagnalls  Standard College Dictionary (Reader’s Digest), nor James C. Fernald’s English Synonyms and Antonyms, also published by Funk and Wagnalls. I’m sure there are others that someone more knowledgeable than myself might mention.

So, beyond the essays, forewords, explanatory notes, staff identification including the names of consultants, (and accent marks), what have we lost with the demise of print?

Apart from the serendipity (to use a word first included in a dictionary by David B. Guralnik) of finding out, as Sparks says, “something you didn’t know you wanted to know,” we have given up the whole in favor of some of its parts. A dictionary is a work of art, a work of history, a workaday reference that inspires, amuses, delights, and on occasion frustrates the reader. Every dictionary carries its own style of writing and presentation. Every dictionary whether we see them or not, has its strengths and weaknesses, but the true pleasure of a dictionary is in turning its pages. With one hand you can study an entry while keeping a second page open with the other. You can grab pages in clumps to find what you want, or turn them one at a time as if they were the pages of a suspense novel, or a precious correspondence.

While writing this essay, I sometimes used the dictionary applications on my computer or the dictionary websites, even while the books sat on the desk before me. It is easier, or it seems easier, to look up words on a computer, when one is already writing on that same computer. “In a print dictionary the word that you’re interested in is surrounded by lots of words that you’re not interested in,” says Erin McKean, “And they can get in the way.” While I could not disagree with her more strongly, there may be many people who share her feeling.

Hardcover dictionaries are not so portable and they cost money, as opposed to all the free (and potentially portable) lookups available online. But people also like online dictionaries because it is thrilling to see something familiar in a new place. The online definition is a magnified version of print, with no rules to read, no pronunciation to decipher, and a seamless bleed into other reference works, photos, or videos. Online dictionaries offer the movie version of a definition, although the director in this case does not radically change the plot, that is, the essential information taken from print about a particular word stays the same.

As of this moment a download for purchase resembles a print product more closely than a website does. The former contains no ads and includes a word list that allows the reader to see some of the words that precede and follow the one being looked up. Erin McKean says Wordnik had a “word wheel,” but eliminated it because “we realized no one was clicking on it.” This is a perfect illustration of what internet publishing allows for: the use of metrics to quickly edit or remove content.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the printed dictionary, “a form of time-stop photography for language,” as Guralnik would have it (AP story in NYT, 11.08.81).  And speaking of Guralnik, the changing language and new words, anyone with a purely prescriptionist view of dictionaries ought to read his essay from the NYT magazine, “Coinage and Change,” 8.26.79.

A daily issue of a printed newspaper reflects not only the news of the day, but an editorial and aesthetic point of view. Internet publication changes that. For example, the Chicago Tribune printed a story by Brian Bennett that led the “Nation & World” section of June 9th with the headline, “Drug War Tactics Take New Hit.”

I looked for the story on the Tribune website because I wanted to tweet it, but it wasn’t listed among the top stories, or any of the stories from the June 9th newspaper. I found it on Google as a Los Angeles Times story with the headline, “U.S. can’t justify its drug war spending, reports say.” If you search the Tribune website with the original Los Angeles Times headline,you will find it, but not as a story that appeared in the Trib. The editorial judgment that created the newspaper of June 9th was invisible outside of the printed record, a record that might or might not be preserved.

(Not to mention that according to a new FCC report  roughly 13,400 newspaper newsroom positions across the country have been eliminated. The report says, “… in part because of the digital revolution, serious problems have arisen, as well. Most significant among them: in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting.”)

If major revisions become unimportant, and we have access only to a continuous present of updated entries, the history of our language, and the visible hands of dictionary authorship, will disappear.

Dictionaries, like Newspapers, have been atomized, but the actual consequences for dictionary readers (as opposed to the impact on our society of changes in news reporting) are probably negligible. But what this atomization reflects, the trend of which it is a part is quite disturbing.

At the third plenary session of the recent annual meeting of the Association of American University presses in Baltimore, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, declared that “to disaggregate” books is a good thing. She also referred to the “mythologized process” that everyone is reading an entire book.  According to her blog, Professor Fitzpatrick will become the Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association. No doubt in her new role she can help set standards for “chunking,” the practice of splitting books apart in order to sell individual chapters. (Many of her points were skillfully countered by Ohio State’s Frank J. Donoghue, author of “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.”)

Joseph Janes, Associate Professor at the Information School of the University of Washington spoke at The Acquisitions Institute at Timberline Lodge last May. According to the Twitter reporting of his speech by Doug Armato, Director of the University of Minnesota Press, Janes said that the shaping of the scholarly record via collections, copyediting, and capitalization were all part of “the good old days.”

Janes believes that the book is dying and that we are headed to a future of “everything free, everywhere perfectly searchable.” In this new world peer review will be out the window, and the new generation of scholars will neither write books, nor journal articles, but will produce multimedia forms. “Janes speaks of the ‘opening hand’ of new scholarly communication” tweets Armato, “Means knowledge will be fragmentary, no common reference.”

It remains to be seen to what extent the digital evangelists will own the future. But clearly they have technology (and technology companies) on their side, and the proclivity of a culture that is making a virtue of divided attention and learning centered entirely on electronic devices.

I cannot mention the digital evangelists without pointing out that the more human beings rely on electronic devices, cloud computing, and ever-growing numbers of increasingly powerful servers and transmission towers, the more power plants will be required to meet demand. There is nothing “green” about your computer, your tablet, or your cell phone. It just so happens that today’s print edition of the Chicago Tribune carries the headline, “Power Plants Kill Millions of Lake Fish.”

Furthermore, there is growing concern among some scientists and other thoughtful people that low-level electromagnetic fields may be injurious to the health of all living things.

Last month The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly issued a resolution, “The potential Dangers of Electromagnetic Fields and their Effect on the Environment.”

This report contains a long list of recommendations, the most eye-catching of which is #8.3.2: “Ban all mobile phones, DECT phones or Wifi or WLAN systems from classrooms and schools, as advocated by some regional authorities, medical associations and civil society organizations.”

Who knows, maybe some future generation, turning its back on the excesses of technology, in the wake of the environmental catastrophe caused by high energy use and electromagnetism-induced cancers, may settle on the humble print dictionary as a comforting emblem of a simpler time.

Photo Tweeted by Peter Sokolowski from DSNA meeting in Montreal

In the meantime, we should take Peter Sokolowski’s advice to save our old editions.

Nostalgia for print will grow, even as we look up words online with a book nearby. Soon, biographies of Noah Webster, Samuel Johnson, the madmen and the professors, may be brought to you via Hollywood or Sundance (Mel Gibson is making a film based on Simon Winchester’s book). Ah, the drama of citation, definition, etymology! Meanwhile, the pleasure of words will not be lost on discerning readers, students of language, writers, or intelligent beings from those newly discovered random planets in the Milky Way.

I will end this long post with a brief telephone exchange I had with Andrew Sparks about the state of copy editing. Anyone who reads this blog post will agree. Indeed, the words of Brucejquller fit his description:

SPARKS: There are no such things as copy editors any more, everyone is his own copy editor. You’ve got that machine in front of you, you punch out the things, you may, on a good day go back and proofread your own stuff, but as far as copy, everybody needs a copy editor. Just for syntax, you know what you mean to say, and when you read it to yourself, you put all the things in there that you know are meant to be there.  I read it and I think “God that’s confusing I can’t figure out what that refers to,” because I don’t know what you’re saying and that’s why you have copy editors to smooth out the kinks that you don’t see because its your own baby and you know what it’s potential is at least. But there are no copy editors, you haven’t got time for copy editing.”

BRUCEJQUILLER: Right, it’s just a waste of money to have copy editors.

SPARKS: And it is, because people don’t care any more. I’m not being cynical. I do think that the change in culture is going to make a change in all of our feelings about words and writing.

BRUCEJQUILLER: I guess everything will just be like one long text message.

SPARKS: Exactly. We hope it’s a good text message, there must be some good text messages, but I don’t know, I don’t indulge.

§ 9 Responses to DICTIONARIES GONE WILD: Our Works and Days Online

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