Writer applauds print dictionary’s demise

This veteran writer praises Macmillan’s decision to stop killing trees in favor of having only a digital version.

Here are my curmudgeon credentials:

  • I studied Latin for a year, albeit under daily protest.
  • I typed my thesis in honors political science on a typewriter. With carbon paper.
  • I spent a dozen years toiling as an ink-stained wretch in the newspaper business.

By any standard, I’m surely old enough to fall into the fiendishly-addicted-to-print demographic. But when I heard that Macmillan would no longer publish dictionaries in print form, I suppressed a yeehaw. It’s an enormous weight off my bookshelves.

And it’s about bloody time. Most of us have been writing on computers for the last 25 years. About the only person I know who doesn’t feel comfortable with things digital is my 88-year-old mother-in-law.

People who spend their lives hunched over keyboards—which is to say, most of us in North America—know that looking up a word online is a lickety-split task. In fact, I just Googled lickety-split to double-check the spelling. Why would I reach for my dictionary to do that?

I feel some sympathy for people who mourn the loss of books but I don’t share their sorrow. I love my Kindle and, in fact, prefer reading fiction on it as opposed to “real” books. I do miss bookstores—I always enjoyed browsing the shelves—but if you forced me to choose between the pleasures of bookstores or the ease of ordering a book with a single click, it would take me no longer than a nanosecond to choose the latter.

My affection for things digital becomes even more zealous when it comes to reference material. For a time I stored a dictionary under my bed so I could consult it while reading in the evening. After almost getting a hernia and practically dislocating my shoulder every time I tried to lift the tome, I found myself avoiding looking up words. It seemed too laborious, too troublesome. Now, however, I simply look them up on my Kindle with a few quick clicks. It’s painless.

Besides, who browses a dictionary? It’s a purpose-driven device. You beat eggs with an eggbeater, and you look up words in a dictionary.

I find I agree with Macmillan editor-in-chief Michael Rundell, who in his blog announcement said unflinchingly, “The digital medium is the best platform for a dictionary.” He’s right. With one proviso.

Dictionary publishers need to be prepared to invest the time (and therefore, money) in updating entries. In one of the comments attached to Rundell’s announcement I was troubled to read a remark by a woman calling herself The Virtual Linguist. (Her name is Susan Harvey; have a look at her rather smart blog.)

In any case, she reported to Rundell: “In December 2010 I commented via the message box on your website that your definition for Inland Revenue was out of date.” Apparently, a Macmillan employee replied and said, “We need to update that entry.” And the punchline? Two years later, Macmillan has still not updated it.

My verdict? Dictionary publishers can’t have it both ways. If they want to avoid the expense and nuisance of printing, fair enough. But they can’t also avoid the expense of updating entries.

Because if they do the definition of the word dictionary might read something like this:

[ML. dictionarium] 1. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language with definitions, etymologies, pronunciations, and other information. Abandoned in the early 21st century. Archaic.

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