Should dictionaries be crowd-sourced?

There’s talk that crowd-sourcing will replace the more considered efforts of trained lexicographers, but is such speculation mere piffle, hogwash, poppycock, and balderdash?

There has been much discussion lately about crowd-sourced dictionary-making. For example, slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, in an article in the Guardian, observes ironically that everyone “seems to have a novel in them. Maybe there’s a dictionary, too.”

Some of the commentary on this topic gives the impression that dictionaries’ future could lie in the hands of the public, instead of being entrusted to trained lexicographers. But does anyone consider this a serious possibility—Urban Dictionary-style websites aside? It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries’ finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done, to varying degrees.

In a recent post on whether the wisdom of crowds can work for dictionaries, Michael Rundell assesses Macmillan’s experience with its crowd-sourced Open Dictionary. He finds that the most fruitful areas for user-generated content are “neologisms, regional varieties, and technical terms”—words beyond what James Murray called the “well-defined centre” of English vocabulary—and he acknowledges that “enlisting enthusiastic amateurs and subject-field specialists could help us to develop even better resources in the long run.”

Neologisms also appear regularly in Macmillan Dictionary’s weekly BuzzWord column, where Kerry Maxwell writes about usages that are new or newly popular. Some of the featured words (such as medal and troll) already exist in the dictionary but under more familiar senses; most (twitchfork, humblebrag) have no entries there at all. The BuzzWord articles allow topical expressions—few of them destined for imminent dictionary inclusion—to be explained in detail to curious readers.

Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain skepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.

The problem, as Orin Hargraves said in a comment to Rundell’s post, is “the lack of any curatorial aspect.” User-generated dictionaries allow for meanings to be invented willy-nilly, or intuited based on scant evidence, then published on a whim. Entertainment value alone may then boost their standing. Signals must compete with noise. No one seriously enquiring about word usage will rely exclusively on such sources, though they may appreciate their supplementary and niche value.

This is where mainstream dictionaries excel (or should, ideally). They can vet material and analyze it against evidence of usage, for example in huge corpora of language as it has been written and spoken. People turn to trusted dictionaries, online and off, for guidance, authority, and reliability. They know its entries have been composed systematically, with care and deliberation, by people appropriately trained in the art.

But any notion that it’s either one or the other is a false dilemma. It’s not an either/or scenario. Authoritative dictionaries will continue to invite content from readers, but this doesn’t mean they’re handing over the keys. The curation should, and will, continue.

Stan is a freelance writer and editor based in Galway, Ireland. He writes about language, words, books and more on his blog, Sentence first, and elsewhere. You can also find him on Twitter. A version of this article originally appeared on the Macmillan Dictionary blog.

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