The Smithy of Words

In school, whenever I read the Times of India I would come across many words that were unintelligible to me. So I would inevitably turn to my coveted bilingual (English to Marathi) dictionary that I had forced my parents to buy for me. But looking up the meaning of every difficult word slowed down my reading pace so much that I eventually gave up using the dictionary. And since then I have always found it cumbersome to search for a word in the big fat tome that a dictionary is. (Pocket dictionaries are generally useless because, to fit your pocket, they contain only the most common words.)

A friend of mine, a part-time teacher, narrated an incident that happened in her tuition class. She was teaching her students how to use a dictionary when a bright young girl asked, “Why search so much through the book? I just go on to the dictionary app on my phone and I get not only the meaning but the audio pronunciation as well.” Well, I can’t agree more with that girl’s pragmatic approach. For lazy bums like me, the dictionary app has been a real boon.

The most renowned and authoritative dictionaries in the world, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are also available as smartphone apps. Since the first monolingual English dictionary was published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey (containing around 2,500 entries), we have come a long way. But lexicographers have toiled for centuries for dictionaries to reach their current stage. Samuel Johnson—probably one of the two most famous lexicographers in the world (the other being Noah Webster)—took nine years to complete his dictionary, while the work on the OED’s first edition went on for 70 years. (Coincidentally, 15 April 2015 marked the 260th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755 in London.)

Dictionary-making is a dead serious business. New words are added after rigorous vetting, and sources spanning centuries are constantly checked to fix the correct etymology of words old and new. Samuel Johnson had famously defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

But when we unshackle the dictionary from its printed pages and put it on the World Wide Web, it has the potential to transform itself magically. Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced initiative which started as a fun project in 1999, is the best example. Urban Dictionary is a place where you will often find the quirkiest, funniest and sometimes very offensive definitions of words. That’s because it does not have any lexicographers, editors or any kind of gatekeepers on its staff. Word entries are submitted by the users and vetted by the users. So a neologism which may take years to appear in OED—or may never appear—can find place of pride in Urban Dictionary almost overnight. Consider these few word entries to sample the ingenuity of Urban Dictionary’s users-cum-amateur lexicographers:

  • College: an expensive daycare centre
  • Stupid: someone who has to look up “stupid” in the dictionary because they don’t know what it means
  • Tequila: a Spanish word meaning, “I don’t remember doing that…”

Aaron Peckham, the company’s founder and chief executive, told the Guardian, “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, (but) as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.” The robustness and the tongue-in-cheek nature of a project like Urban Dictionary is possible only in the internet era.

Though the immediacy, cheekiness and exuberance of Urban Dictionary are exciting traits, they are not desirable in a standard dictionary. But that doesn’t mean standard dictionaries have not been able to “win the internet.” They are present as stand-alone websites, on social media, and in smartphones. The great thing about the Web is that dictionaries do not face space constraints, and updating old entries or adding new ones is very easy. It is possible that OED’s third edition—on which a team of 70 philologists, including lexicographers, etymologists and pronunciation experts, has been working for the past 20 years—may not be printed at all. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of Oxford University Press, told the Telegraph as much. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”

New technology has significantly reduced the time gap between encountering a difficult word and finding its meaning. Many internet-based products and services dealing with words come with pre-installed dictionaries. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has a functionality which allows you to tap on a word for a few milliseconds before its dictionary definition appears. Features like this, which have their genesis in the internet age, are making reading a better experience for not just non-native English speakers but native speakers as well.

(Note: This article was first published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly in the issue dated May 16, 2015.)

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