Alas, Poor Webster, We Knew Him Well How dictionaries are being innovated out of business

The prophetic irony with which Noah Webster warned against innovation in his 1828 dictionary may elicit a few nervous laughs from his successors today. He concluded the entry for “innovate” with a note—in the guise of a sample sentence—that “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation,” almost two centuries before the novelties of the Information Age would jeopardize the very book in which he first wrote his words of caution.

One danger of digital innovation has already loomed large in the conscience of lexicographers for years: business failure. The advent of the Internet has left print dictionaries in a financially moribund state. In a world where the reader’s attention—now a more precious resource than it ever was—may be lost with the blink  of an eye, the lexicographical industry finds itself facing a shift in audience, one that prefers instant satisfaction over a time-consuming trip to the bookshelf. Given the convenience and ubiquity of electronic dictionaries and mobile applications, print sales no longer generate the profits on which lexicographers have traditionally relied. Upon closing their Edinburgh office in 2009, Chambers Harrap Publishers, the publisher of The Chambers Dictionary, announced that “[t]he digital revolution is changing the way readers consume news and search for information. People are moving away from printed reference books and going online where, generally, they expect to get their information for free.” Chambers is not alone. The staff of Webster’s New World Dictionary seems to have all but disappeared from its former office in Cleveland, and its fate—about which linguist Allan Metcalf “sought in vain for definitive information”—seems tied to the fact that WNWD’s adopted publisher, John Wiley & Sons, revealed in March 2012 its intentions to divest its publishing assets along with the dictionary. In November 2012, Macmillan Education announced that it would phase out its print dictionary in order to focus on expanding the online counterpart. And finally, even the venerated Oxford English Dictionary stated in early 2014 that its third edition—now twenty years behind schedule—may very well not appear in print, for it would infeasibly span twice the length of its twenty-volume predecessor as a result of what chief editor Michael Proffitt calls an “information overload” from the Internet.

While online dictionaries may seem to more than redeem the loss of their printed counterparts, some lexicographers fear that going out of print may be a gateway to complete obsolescence. At the 19th biennial meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, Ilan Kernerman, the C.E.O. of the bilingual English dictionary maker K Dictionaries, points out that digital technology jeopardizes not only print dictionaries, but the future of dictionaries as a whole. In his aptly titled speech “Dictionary n. (Obsolete)? Before and Afterwords,” Kernerman voices his concern that dictionaries may one day be completely subsumed under broader electronic language processing entities like machine translation tools, language-learning software, search engines, and word processors. “We are under threat,” he says of his own company. “I don’t know how long we are going to last.”[1]

Funding aside, a deeper problem lurks in the future of lexicography, particularly in the way in which dictionaries now marshal an online following.

The integration of lexicography and computer technology comes not without benefits, of course. Some, like the editors of Macmillan, have chosen to embrace the digital future of their dictionaries. “We’re setting the dictionary free,” says an upbeat ad for the transition, “to reflect all the growth and creativity that English speakers bring to the language every day, all over the globe.”[2] Unlike printed books, the Internet has no boundaries in time and space. Whereas print dictionaries were necessarily exhaustive due to space constraints, the digital platform has unfettered the dictionary from the costs of physical publication. The pervasive rise of social media and digital communication moreover offers a virtually endless database of authentic language data, which lexicographers can mine and analyze to keep abreast of lexical innovation (and I would urge you to consider again the word “innovation”). The online presence of dictionaries allows them to accommodate user input, update themselves in virtual real-time, and continue expanding with unprecedented breadth. For dictionaries like the OED that have remained primarily in scholarly domains, the efficiency and user-friendly interface of their online counterparts have made them popular among scholars and non-specialists alike.

Yet the waning commercial viability of print dictionaries remains a persistent thorn in the sides of reference publishers, who are still struggling to find a stable business model that would sustain a large-scale production of new dictionary data.[3] Although many dictionary publishers now sell or license the use of their databases for linguistic research, mobile apps, or online access through dictionary portal sites, the revenue generated from such ventures cannot fully support the maintenance and development of these databases. In the absence of angel donors, the riches of the Internet will be of limited use to dictionary publishers who lack the funding structure necessary for generating labor-intensive lexicographical content. These inconvenient realities all amount to what Michael Rundell, the Editor-in-Chief of Macmillan Dictionaries, considers a painful paradox in lexicography: dictionaries have found themselves in peril precisely at a time when “dictionaries have at last found their ideal platform in the online medium.”[4] The problem offers itself as yet another instance of Sophocles’ more sweeping adage that “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”

In a profit-driven capitalist society like ours, it’s no wonder that lexicographers have lapsed into a money-induced panic over the survival of their business. Yet funding aside, a deeper problem lurks in the future of lexicography, particularly in the way in which dictionaries now marshal an online following. Dictionary makers have a profound understanding of the self-consciousness with which people police their own language. Any reminder that a person’s linguistic behavior—be it a grammatical nicety or a point of pronunciation—can bear improvement will spur clandestine visits to the nearest computer or smartphone for confirmation.[5] Thus, in a world where advertising revenue hinges on the number of pageviews garnered, the expanding online presence of dictionaries often boosts website traffic by capitalizing on people’s sensitivities to their linguistic mistakes. A reliance on cheap clickbait—often in “listicle”-like form—has grown commonplace among the websites for even the most revered reference works. A quick glance at Merriam-Webster’s page of top-ten lists reveals headlines such as “Top 10 Commonly Confused Words”; “Top 10 Unusually Long and Interesting Words”; “Simple But Intelligent Word Choices” (including overused buzzwords like “paradigm,” “dichotomy,” and “conundrum”); “Top 10 Sophisticated Insults” (which consist mostly of highbrow terms for simple vices such as “insipid,” “twee,” and “pusillanimous”); and “Top 10 Words with Bizarre Meanings.” The “Quizzes” section of the website plants another set of itchy doubts over the reader’s linguistic aptitude: “How Strong Is Your Vocabulary? Take our 10-question quiz to find out”; “True or False? A quick quiz about stuff worth knowing”; and “Spell It: the commonly misspelled words quiz.”

Novelties like “smiley face” (2001), “hella” (2002), “f—ked-up” (2008), “wassup” (2011), and the figurative sense of “literally” (2011) have received editorial attention far in advance of their initial place in the revision schedule. The sensationalism of Internet parlance has, at the same time, diverted our attention from the dictionary definitions that truly need editorial scrutiny.

Such headlines tempt readers to second-guess their own communicative competence by intimating some inadequacy in their linguistic knowledge, even while lexicographers themselves continue to deny their authority over language use. Lexicographers consider their job to be a matter of describing language usage as it is, whether or not individuals approve of certain usages. “Our job is to document [linguistic change] for better or for worse,” writes the OED Senior Editor Fiona McPherson on the OxfordWords blog. “Except for us, there is no worse. We have to look at language objectively and dispassionately.” Yet even as lexicographers insist that dictionaries are not in the business of prescribing usage, they continue to rely on a revenue stream that exploits the user’s desire for linguistic correctness—a desire based on a fundamental misconception of the dictionary’s purpose, one that directly contradicts the lexicographers’ claims to descriptivism.

Some may dismiss this problem as purely a matter of marketing, peripheral to the editorial policies for the dictionary entries themselves. Yet some dictionaries—notably the OED Online—have already begun to make editorial compromises for the sake of user satisfaction. While the linguist Deborah Cameron acknowledges the accessibility of online dictionaries as an overall enhancement, she also takes care to warn that the dictionary’s “pursuit of popularity” marks “a more fundamental shift in institutional culture, insofar as it subordinates the editors’ professional judgment to the preferences of users.” In commencing the first wholesale revision in the OED’s history, the editors originally scheduled for their quarterly updates of the dictionary to proceed in alphabetical order (starting at M), batches of which are then periodically released to the OED Online. As the dictionary rose in online popularity, however, editors began to deviate from this initial model of revision in order to address those entries that attracted a large number of Internet hits. In their commentary to the March 2008 update of the OED Online, the editors announced their decision to “vary the publication mix,” alternating each quarter between the former schedule of sequential revision and a new schedule in which they revise “key English words from across the alphabet,” which sometimes simply amount to “those often looked up by readers of the OED.”

In practice, this change in policy effectively hands editorial priorities over to user caprice. Words that gather Internet hits for what may well be trivial reasons—be it profanity, length, or sheer propensity to elicit giggles—can snag a front seat in the revision queue. Novelties like “smiley face” (2001), “hella” (2002), “f—ked-up” (2008), “wassup” (2011), and the figurative sense of “literally” (2011) have received editorial attention far in advance of their initial place in the revision schedule. The sensationalism of Internet parlance has, at the same time, diverted our attention from the dictionary definitions that truly need editorial scrutiny. The OED entry for “couple” has not been fully updated since 1893, and still defines the word’s romantic sense as “a man and woman united by love or marriage” (sense II.5.a), an oversight that seems especially astounding after the OED famously changed its definition of “marriage” last July to include same-sex partners. Likewise, the entry for “Eskimo” has not seen a full update since 1933, and therefore lacks warning labels regarding its potential to offend. The only relevant usage note to this entry offers a modest remark that “[i]n Canada, the word Eskimo has been superseded by Inuit with reference to the people. Eskimo, however, is the only term which applies to the people as a whole, and is still widely used, especially in anthropological and archaeological contexts.”

The paradox in electronic lexicography therefore goes beyond a matter of commercial obsolescence: the question that lexicographers must answer is not whether dictionaries will survive as a species of reference work—for they certainly will exist in some virtual form or another—but rather, whether dictionaries will be able to persist in the face of digital innovation while maintaining a consonant set of ideals. Today’s dictionary is less a product than a service, less a book than a set of verbal commentary endlessly refracted in a potpourri of thumbnails and BuzzFeed-esque clickbait. At one level, the “democratization” of user access and input compromises the editorial discretion of lexicographers and detracts from the dictionary’s value as a work of serious scholarship. At another level, the dictionary’s attempt to increase website traffic seems to have created a culture that is more self-conscious of language prescription, by virtue of appealing to the readers’ desire for linguistic accuracy. Contrary to lexicographers’ descriptivist ideals, the dictionary persists in cyberspace as a mirror by which netizens police their own language. The future of lexicography therefore faces a fork in the road: the industry either goes out of business and gives way to lexicographical anarchy—foreshadowed by the infamous Urban Dictionary and the incomprehensive Wiktionary—or, in the more likely case, continues to lead a virtual existence riddled with tensions between its editorial priorities and monetary necessities. The internal contradictions of the latter case, I fear, may jeopardize the dictionary as a concept more than any other digital novelty could. The dictionary will meet its demise at the hands of nothing but itself.

  1. Ilan Kernerman, “Dictionary n. (Obsolete)? Before and Afterwords,” (Presentation, 19th Biennial Meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, Athens, Georgia, May 24, 2013).
  2. Michael Rundell, “Stop the presses – the end of the printed dictionary.”
  3. Patrick Hanks, “Corpus evidence and electronic lexicography,”in Electronic Lexicography, ed. Sylviane Granger and Magali Paquot, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 77.
  4. Michael Rundell, “The road to automated lexicography: An editor’s viewpoint,” in Electronic Lexicography, ed. Sylviane Granger and Magali Paquot, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 16.
  5. For those interested in the nature of dictionary search spikes, Merriam-Webster’s “Trend Watch” section devotes itself specifically to linking search spikes in certain words with the newsworthy contexts in which those words appeared.