Sunday, May 6, 2007

Is the Dictionary Obsolescing?

I know that encyclopedias have become the dinosaurs of the reference department, but I sadly suspect that dictionaries may be plodding along in their footsteps. The first clue came on gradually. I and my husband Dan have had to repeatedly barrage our school-aged kids with the nagging refrain of "Go look it up in the dictionary" when they ask what different words or phrases mean. They get the occasional free pass out of our brains, but two or more requests earns a mandatory parental nag.

Then I noticed that when the offspring had homework assignments involving word definitions, they were loathe to pull the various dictionaries from our shelves. I chalked it up to laziness or perhaps their puny arm strength, but now I have the creeping fear that they just don't think about the physical act of reaching for the dictionary and thumbing through. It's apparently ingrained in their synapses to dive for the computer keyboard and look things up on the Internet. The time savings of being able to type in a word and the enter key as opposed to the arduous trek to the bookshelf must be the deciding factor.

The knockout blow came this week when I had a customer come in and relate how her niece had come over to visit and giggled about "that antique" on her bookshelves. They had quite a conversational disconnect with my customer not knowing what she was talking about and the niece rolling her eyes and finally brandishing the resident dictionary.

I've tried the Internet dictionary route and it just isn't satisfying. Where's the serendipitous pleasure of having your eye stray to neighboring words and archaic phrases? Where are the interesting engraved illustrations? What will happen to the ennobling profession of lexicography? Will our language be dumbed down to a few thousand words of vocabulary and text message-style spelling? And am I the only one who really needs to have more than one dictionary in my house?

I love my dictionaries. Most thumbed is the Webster's New World Dictionary, second college edition I won in high school from the local historical society for having good history marks. I never fail to inhale one or two new weird words out of it when I'm looking up something else. A recent addition is a long-coveted (and purloined from our bookstore)Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It's so beautiful; three volumes of microscopic print and it has an accompanying magnifying glass. I make lots of use of my three-volume set of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary for those fabulous foreign words that encrust my recreational reading and which I used extensively in study for two rounds of a charity spelling bee. I must also have in readiness a Scrabble dictionary, my dictionary of saints, various literary reference dictionaries and the sweetheart of the reference shelves, my bibliomaniac grandma’s 2,000+ page Webster's unabridged "New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language".

Maybe the dictionary in paper form is becoming the dodo of the reference section, but what are publishers doing about this? For a passionate look at the future of lexicography, check out Erin McKean's interesting Dictionary Evangelist Blog. According to Wikipedia, which I grant you is a valuable non-book, reference resource, she's the hip Chief Consulting Editor, American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, and the editor of VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly, as well as the author of a number of language books, which now I must get hold of.

P.S. Used a paper dictionary three times for this post.

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