On good dictionaries and bad

I had the pleasure of attending the eLex (“electronic lexicography”) conference in Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium earlier this month. As someone who works a lot with lexical databases, I was in my element at an event where everybody was talking about electronic dictionaries.

One of the issues that was discussed a lot at the conference was the question, how do people actually use electronic dictionaries? There are, of course, many different kinds of electronic dictionaries including CD-ROM ones, on-line ones, and dictionaries embedded in hand-held devices. And there are quite striking differences in how people use them in different parts of the world. I already knew that hand-held dictionaries are much more popular in Asia than in Europe, but a talk given by Hilary Nesi at the conference added a great deal of detail that I didn’t know yet.

It turns out that in South-East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, electronic dictionaries have something of a gadget status among the young, comparable to that of iPods and iPhones here in Europe. Even devices that contain a bundle of other applications beside dictionaries, including organizers, e-book readers and encyclopedias, are still marketed as dictionaries. That suggests that dictionaries enjoy a high a status in these societies. (I should say that we are talking about English dictionaries here, and specifically about dictionaries for people who learning English or using English as a second language.)

The fact that dictionaries are considered so important there sounds like good news, but it’s not all good. The trouble is that many of these e-dictionaries are of dubious quality. Hilary Nesi was showing examples in her talk of made-up headwords that practically don’t exist in English but which, strangely enough, can be found in e-dictionaries available in Asia (“examinationist”, “supposable”). She also showed us what kinds of example sentences sometimes get included inside the dictionary entries: some of them wouldn’t pass for grammatical English by any standard (“he will arrive the coffee” and so on). To find things like these in a popular dictionary for learners of English is worrying.

That says two things to me. First, many Asian e-dictionary publishers are ruthless marketers who care only about superficial measures, such as the number of headwords, instead of concentrating on quality and usefulness to the user. Second, Asian dictionary users, or at least the young ones, are seriously underinformed about what dictionaries are for and how they’re meant to be used to support them in the language-learning process. They’re doing damage to themselves by using these half-baked products.

I think that we are doing a little better here in Europe. It’s not all hunky-dory of course, there are a fair share of misunderstandings about dictionaries out there among the general public, but on the whole I think people are a bit more critical here about where they get their lexical information from. We certainly don’t have cowboy publishers who’d go as far as inventing makey-uppy headwords just to boost the wordcount.

But the inclination to settle for a substandard dictionary exists everywhere in the world, including Europe. We Europeans may not share the Asians’ obsession with hand-held dictionaries but we do use on-line dictionaries a lot. And some of them are seriously deficient, especially the free ones. There is something about the electronic medium that encourages the spread of low-quality content. This is the case in all areas, not just dictionaries, and it probably has to do with low barriers of entry. It’s easy to put something on the Internet and it’s easy to access it. This sometimes fools people into thinking that ease of access is all that matters. Many popular dictionaries on the Internet are super-convenient to search and browse but have serious weaknesses when it comes to the accuracy and completeness of the information they provide. On-line dictionaries tend to be compiled by people who are good technologists but have little understanding of language beyond the fact that they are speakers of it.

The trouble is that many dictionary users are not aware of these weaknesses. In many cases, all that people care about when deciding whether a dictionary is “good” or not is the number of headwords (the more the better) and sometimes the provenance (anything with “Oxford” on it will sell well). Criteria such as how well and in how much detail the dictionary describes the words’ meanings and usage often doesn’t even come into the equation.

This brings us back to the point that dictionary users are often appallingly uninformed about what dictionaries are about and how dictionaries are meant to serve their users. In an ideal world, dictionary skills would be part of general literacy skills and would be acquired at school: people would learn at school how to handle this text type we call “dictionary”, how to use dictionaries effectively and how to evaluate them critically. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.

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2 thoughts on “On good dictionaries and bad

  1. Substantially, the post is really the best on this notable topic. I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your incoming updates. Just saying cheers will not just be sufficient, for the exceptional lucidity in your writing. I will directly grab your rss feed to stay abreast of any updates. Delightful work and much success in your business endeavors!

  2. Thank you! Thank you! I have been telling this to my electronic-dictionary-addicted student for years. I foresee many battles for the use of paper dictionaries in the future, so I may make your blog famous yet. Rock on! 😉

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