Is the Web killing the dictionary?

Paper, e-book, app.I have been going to lexicography conferences for many years now, including the Euralex congresses and the eLex series. One popular opinion that always emerges in talks and conversations at such events is that the Web is – supposedly – killing the dictionary. Now that I’m about to attend yet another instalment of the eLex conference (taking place in Tallinn, Estonia this year – great, I hear the Baltic Sea is lovely in October!) I thought it would be a good idea to dissect this opinion a little. Let’s dissect away, then.

Usually, people who claim this (that the Web is killing the dictionary) are making two distinct but related arguments. One is what I’ll call the amateur versus professional argument, the other I’ll call the free versus paid-for argument.

The amateur versus professional argument refers to the fact that the Web has low barriers of entry and it is super-easy for anyone to publish anything on it. What this means for lexicography is that most (of what passes for) dictionaries you’ll find on the Web these days have been authored by amateurs who don’t really know what they’re doing. Consequently, the quality is lower than what you’d get from a carefully edited dictionary from an academic or commercial publisher. Add to it the lack of dictionary skills among the general population and the fact that people cannot easily spot the difference between a good dictionary and a bad one, and you are in trouble – if you are a dictionary publisher, that is.

The free versus paid-for argument hinges on another property of the Web, which is that everything on it tends to be free of charge. People simply aren’t willing to pay for content online as much as they are offline, be it dictionaries or newspapers or something else. There are many historical reasons why the Web has come to be this way but the point is that it is this way. We are now in a curious situation when publishers, including commercial ones, are putting a lot of content on the Web while not making much money from it – definitely less than they used to in the printed market. It’s hard being a dictionary publisher these days: you just can’t get people to pay you for your painstakingly hand-crafted reference work. You either have to give it to them for free or they’ll not want it at all – and go somewhere else where they can get a substandard pseudo-equivalent for free.

These two facts are conspiring to squeeze the budgets of publishers everywhere, including publishers of dictionaries. The days when every self-respecting household and office felt it needed to own a printed dictionary are gone. People google stuff now.

This is where the discussion usually trails off into a gloomy silence. Everybody knows that this is happening and everybody expects the consequences to be severe. It seems like the dictionary publishing industry has worried itself into a depression.

I would like to suggest that things are not so gloomy after all. Yes, it is true that the print market is receding. Yes, it is true that you can’t get people to pay for dictionaries online. But that is not the whole story. The media market is not just about print versus online. There are other ways you can push dictionaries at people, and I will now look at two of them: e-books and smartphones.

Let’s look at e-books first. If you read e-books, you will know that most e‑book devices come with one or two dictionaries built in and you can search them in-line by clicking or tapping a word in any book you’re reading. The question to ask now is: how can I, as a reader/user, plug in a dictionary I like into this? My Kindle only comes with dictionaries for English and French. If I want to read in German or Irish or whatever other language and if I want to have in‑line access to a dictionary in that language, how can I do that?

And the question for dictionary publishers is, how can we make it possible for a customer to buy an electronic dictionary from us and install it onto his or her e-book device? Some kind of open API is needed to enable this, but I don’t think one exists yet. I’d like to know if dictionary publishers are talking to e‑book device makers about this. They should, in their own interest: e-books are something people are more or less willing to pay for (unlike websites), and the same will presumably apply to installable electronic dictionaries.

So much for e-books. Another area of dictionary application that has emerged recently is dictionaries as smartphone apps. I became a smartphone user recently (I’m obviously not an early adopter) and I’m unimpressed to report that all the dictionary apps I’ve tried are, well, unimpressive. What I mean is that the search features tend to be a bit awkward to use, the entry formatting tends to be misshapen, the overall usability tends to be disappointing – as if the app version is just a poor derivative of the paper version. It seems that the dictionary publishing industry has not quite got the hang of the app market yet. It should wise up quickly if it knows what’s good for it: once again, mobile apps are something that people are prepared to pay for, unlike websites.

To summarize, the point I’m making is this. Although dictionaries are taking a hit in print and on the web, they have potential on mobile devices including smartphones, e‑book readers and whatever else mobile technology we will have in the future. So stop worrying about the Web so much. Yes, the Web is a mad unpredictable place. Fortunately, you do not have to depend on it because you have other outlets.

For me, an ideal dictionary publisher is someone who produces dictionaries as platform-neutral content, to be distributed via several channels simultaneously: definitely as a smartphone app, probably as an e-book reader plugin, perhaps as a website (either free or paid-for or “freemium”), and who knows, perhaps even as a printed book. I wonder how many dictionary publishers attending this year’s eLex will be able to describe themselves like that.

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4 thoughts on “Is the Web killing the dictionary?

  1. Interesting and worrying topic. Pleco is a good smartphone dictionary if you need Mandarin.

  2. The first part of your argument also has an answer. People are willing and able to contribute to the creation of dictionaries. Publishers need to be more savvy about social media. The Wikipedia crowd thinks it perfectly reasonable to be able to add to, edit, or correct mistakes in online text. Dictionaries as ‘born perfect’ books are immensely expensive to produce and become obsolete within hours as things they weren’t aware of come to light. Publishers need to conquer the crowdsourcing capability of the web. True, you can’t rely on the crowd to create an accurate dictionary; but the crowd is quite capable of augmenting a lexicographic staff in making known things that are incomplete or in error in entries. I find it strange that often the only source of information available about new vocabulary is not any published book, but online dictionaries created by crowdsourcing. Sure, their ‘entries’ are anecdotal and not professional—but they are there with information about new words when the print books are at a loss and YEARS behind being able to offer the information while we wait for new editions to be published. The road to extinction is littered with those who lost because they had obsolete methods of coping with the environment.

  3. Regarding a dictionary app for a smartphone, I really like Collins Irish – English for a quick simple meaning, when on the run. If you really want to know more you have to go to the “bible” online or the brick on your shelf, that is O Dónaill.

  4. “You either have to give it to them for free or they’ll not want it at all – and go somewhere else where they can get a substandard pseudo-equivalent for free.” Yes, this also explains why there is a huge morass of really bad video games now (that, and the fact that people are also too lazy to download and install things, so will favour a browser-based Flash hack instead).

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