Lexicon Valley

How Going Electronic Changed Dictionaries

It’s not just about having a dictionary in the palm of your hand: Electronic dictionaries are also more responsive to users.

It may come as no surprise to you that many of us at Merriam-Webster are book enthusiasts. After all, we deal in books: We read them, we mark them, we make them. For my own part, books take up more space in my house than my children do. And yet, when I am reading and need to look up a word, I do what probably 80 percent of you do: I pull up my computer or my smartphone and look up my word online or using an app.

This shift represents something very big from the vantage point of the lexicographer. In the book age, there was very little (if any) direct interaction between the lexicographer and the dictionary user: Both interacted most with the dictionary itself, not with the people beyond. We’d get occasional letters from people who caught typos or thought they spotted errors, but we never knew how dictionaries were actually used, or who was using them, or why. Writing dictionaries and using dictionaries in the book age was a private activity: What you looked up in the comfort of your own home was your business; what I wrote definitions for was my business.

In the book age, then, we made lots of assumptions about how people used dictionaries, and most of those were fueled by our own biases and by how earlier lexicographers approached dictionaries. Samuel Johnson, in his letter asking the Earl of Chesterfield for patronage for his dictionary, notes:

The title which I prefix to my work has long conveyed a very miscellaneous idea, and they that take a dictionary into their hands, have been accustomed to expect from it a solution of almost every difficulty. If foreign words, therefore, were rejected, it could be little regarded, except by criticks, or those who aspire to criticism; and however it might enlighten those that write, would be all darkness to them that only read. The unlearned much oftener consult their dictionaries for the meaning of words, than for their structures or formations; and the words that most want explanation are generally terms of art; which, therefore, experience has taught my predecessors to spread with a kind of pompous luxuriance over their productions.

Johnson didn’t actually know that terms of art were more frequently looked up by “the unlearned,” but it seemed logical to him. If you’re looking to improve yourself, then you’re going to look up higher-level, abstract words. But foreign words and phrases are too high-level for the average Joe: They’d confuse people. Modern lexicographers have carried this line of thought forward. Philip Gove writes in the preface Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged:

More and more do people undertaking a new job, practicing a new hobby, or developing a new interest turn to how-to pamphlets, manuals, and books for both elementary instruction and advanced guidance. Where formerly they had time to learn by doing, they now need to begin by reading and understanding what has been recorded. A quick grasp of the meanings of words becomes necessary if one is to be successful. A dictionary opens the way to both formal learning and to the daily self-instruction that modern living requires.

Gove considered the dictionary to be an instructional tool, which mirrors the actual contents of the Third: lots of technology, science, medicine, new terms for a new DIY era.

But when you put a dictionary online, you have the ability to see what words people are actually looking up. It’s a level of interaction we’ve never had before, and it was a mighty smackdown to our presuppositions of how dictionaries are used. Who knew, for instance, that so many people confused affect and effect? Who knew that dictionary lookups were seasonal: that mother was being looked up near Mother’s Day, that love was being looked up near Valentine’s Day? This new information has informed how we define: For one of the releases of the Unabridged, we spent extra time revising the definitions of the 100 most commonly looked up words.

This new interaction isn’t limited to us watching the lookup log: A dictionary in a completely interactive medium needs to become, well, interactive. When we write definitions now, we try to think carefully about where we can put explanatory hyperlinks, or what sort of examples we can pull from the corpus, or whether or not a supplemental note giving the reader a little extra, nonlexical information would be helpful.

What about the structure of the entry? In print, you jam everything together so that it will all fit in a book, but is that a good way of presenting information online? When we began running individual senses on their own lines instead of all of them clumped together in one paragraph, some of us cringed: that doesn’t look like a dictionary entry. But you know what? Senses on their own lines are easier to highlight, copy, and paste, an activity that only takes place online.

When we began producing dictionaries as apps, we thought back to the days of yore, when folks would buy pocket dictionaries and keep them in their pockets or purses for impromptu use. (Don’t laugh: It happened.) We’d go to used bookstores and find these castoffs, underlined, highlighted, and full of notes. These were personal books. A dictionary on your phone is likewise a personal reference. Our apps let you save favorite words to lists so you can go back to them, like an electronic version of the dog-eared page.

As email and social media have brought the lexicographer and the dictionary user in closer proximity, we discovered something that surprised all us harmless drudges: Dictionary users like words. They like the way certain words sound; they like playing with words; they like hearing more about words. What’s in the dictionary is great, people would email us and say, but can you tell me more? We were bombarded with requests for word-things that weren’t dictionaries: word games, paragraphs explaining etymology, podcasts, teaching aids, information on what new words we were considering, lists of words from French, all the two-letter words that are playable in Scrabble, and so on.

Consequently, we don’t just write entries anymore: Nearly every editor at Merriam-Webster also writes what Johnson would have considered useless palaver, or Gove ancillary information outside the scope of a dictionary. But that’s the point: as Johnson noted, people “have been accustomed to expect from [the dictionary] a solution of almost every difficulty.” That much, at least, hasn’t changed since the 18th century. People go to dictionaries to find out what words mean, yes, but people also go to dictionaries to get lost in words, to revel in words, to puzzle them out and know their inmost being. It’s the same reason that many of us are lexicographers: because language is rich and fun, and we will never finish plumbing its depths. Who knew smartphones were going to be the thing that brought drudge and reader together at last?

A version of this post appeared on the blog of Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

To see what people are looking up today in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, check out the Most Popular lookups page.