Dictionary

Why Printed Dictionaries Became Obsolete For The 2nd Decade Of The 21st Century

Posted on September 9, 2014 · Posted in Linguistics

With sales of paper dictionaries declining, while the number of apps and online alternatives continues to rise, the future for the physical dictionary looks uncertain. In the new era of technology where almost anything we want to know can be found online, is there any future for the traditional method of spell-checking?

Rapid Language Evolution

The English language is undergoing a process of rapid evolution. The US company Global Language Monitor (GLM) believes that a new word is created every 98 minutes in the English language.

New inventions have given rise to completely new terms like “e-reader”, and attached new meaning to old words such as “like” and “tweet”. Social media and digital entertainment have resulted in a number of inventive new terms rapidly gaining popularity, and wiggling their way into everyday use, in a fashion that is quite simply “amazeballs”. At our translation agency we are able to witness languages developing before our eyes. We often come across new terms that were unheard of a year previously.

Dictionary publishers find it challenging to keep pace with these developments. When a new word pops up in common usage, they must first decide whether the term is worthy of its own place in the dictionary. Online services can update in real-time, but physical dictionaries must undergo months of work before they go to print.

It took more than 20 years for the term “F-bomb” to make it out of newspapers and into Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, where it was first included in the 2012 edition. Other new additions that year included the term “earworm”, made popular by Stephen King in a 2009 column piece in Entertainment Weekly, and Oprah’s “aha moment”.

Ease Of Use

While the rapid nature of language evolution undermines the validity of the physical dictionary’s content, handheld devices attack the practicality. A dictionary app takes just a few clicks to download to your cell or tablet, while a physical dictionary is considerably more cumbersome.

Reasons To Be “Old Skool”

Physical dictionaries may be facing some stiff competition, but they are a long way from obsolete. A printed dictionary confers a sense of trust and authority users can never be quite so sure of when checking something online. Those working with language on a daily basis whether in a translation agency, publishing house or newspaper office, will use online and paper-based dictionaries to double check the accuracy of the word’s spelling and meaning. Functionality aside, there’s also a lot of pleasure to be had from a dictionary by chancing upon an unusual word on the same page as the term being examined, or randomly flipping open a page to discover a new term.

The Future Of Alphabetizing

The ability to sort into alphabetical order is drilled into children soon after starting school. When the printed word was indeed printed being able to navigate between index and content, and locate a word in a dictionary were essential skills. Now that information and entertainment is more often than not conveyed in a digital format, all readers need to be able to do is type a word into a search box.

The use of virtual dictionaries will doubtless continue to escalate, but perhaps the special qualities a paper dictionary possesses will help ensure its survival. A physical dictionary connects readers with the alphabet of their language in a way no virtual tool can mimic, and should be afforded a space on everyone’s shelf.