Two months ago I wrote in an article I wrote about how to build a better vocabulary, I recommended buying a good dictionary – only to realize that I no longer possessed one!
I have always been a dictionary fiend, but especially become one while teaching in Eastern Europe, where a good English dictionary was still a rare and valuable object. I remember the joy in my supervisor’s voice when I arranged for him to receive a brand new version of American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). I have fond memories of reaching underneath my bed for the dictionary, looking up a common-but-unclear word like scalloped and closing the book with a precise understanding of the word.
But I had already given away my dictionary and afterwards, well, there was this thing called the Internet, and suddenly dictionaries become bulky and extraneous fetish objects mainly found in haunts for Luddites and retired people.
Should I be recommending that people buy dictionaries anymore?
Purely for nostalgia reasons I decided to buy a new dictionary, and after reading this wonderful review of the New Oxford American dictionary(NOAD) , I dared to think the unthinkable: has an upstart dictionary unseated American Heritage’s position as the best and most practical English dictionary in the world? I made a trek to the local Barnes and Noble to do comparison shopping. If there’s one thing a brick-and-mortar bookstore would be good for, it would be for comparing dictionaries (the books’ heft added substantial shipping charges when purchased online). Both dictionaries were at my Barnes and Noble (thankfully), but both were wrapped in tight plastic — heaven forbid that anyone would actually want to flip through their pages at the store! What was the bookstore afraid of — that word pirates would sneak into the store and pilfer some definitions without paying?
So I went home and did what I should have done in the first place. I went to Amazon.com and used the preview function to compare the NOAD with the AHD . I had expected AHD to win hands down, but even though AHD was nicer to look at and had in-depth discussions about certain words and grammatical points, I actually preferred NOAD for its better etymologies and its secondary definitions.
So I order NOAD used on Amazon.com for $25. Let me tell you; I love it. And imagine my delight upon finding a CD for an electronic version for Windows mobile in the front cover. This version didn’t include any updates and the interface was sort of weird (in an age where you are used to Google’s ajaxy magic anticipating your words before you actually think of them) but still functional.
The problem of course was this pesky Internet thing. As wonderful as NOAD is, it’s never going to keep up with online editions (especially with a dwindling number of customers). Even though older public domain dictionaries still suck and wiktionary is still pretty basic, online definitions have been improving. If you type definition: iatragonic in the google search box, you will receive an ad-free list of dictionary definitions from various sites. (Do you remember those horrifying Internet days where going to a dictionary site meant having to endure popups and animated ads? those days are long behind us).
After buying the NOAD, I compared my online dictionary experience with my old-fashioned 20th century dictionary experience. Again, let me repeat: NOAD is outstanding. Definitions are much fuller and better than any one dictionary definition online, but they just don’t compare with google’s ability to aggregate definitions from several different sources onto a single page. On occasion, I’ve relied on wikipedia entries for a word which describe the background of a word much better than any dictionary ever would — see exclave and (more humorously) merkin. The NOAD definitions were excellent, but the wikipedia’s explanations were better.
The only time when a dictionary was better than Google definitions was when I wanted to learn how to pronounce the word Swedenborgian. Actually though, I just checked dictionary.com for the same word and heard a computerized pronunciation of the word. That’s nice, except that NOAD and dictionary.com offered contradictory pronounciations. Now what?
Here are some other things to consider in the digital vs. print debate. As a high school student I used to write unfamiliar words on the back cover of a book (and look them up in the dictionary later). I was preparing for the SAT, but the habit stuck with me. With ebooks, I have nowhere to store these unfamiliar words; even if I bookmarked the words, they are not easily accessible (nor are they easy to transfer to a centralized word list). Quite by accident I have started keeping a word list on my blog and linking to the best online definition. This has the advantage of letting me access my word list from any computer and watch the list accumulate over time (and impress random readers). It certainly works for me, but at the same time it’s kludgy. Shouldn’t some app developer be able to store word lookups from your iPad or Stanza or Kindle and upload them to some website? Also, wouldn’t it be great if you could preview hard words from an ebook before you start reading? That would be helpful for reading a book in a second language (for example).
In the ebook world, content creators on mobileread have complained about epub’s inadequacy about supporting dictionaries. Here’s Nate the Great’s great xml-based proposal for implementing dictionary definitions in epub.
Finally I would like to tell you about my first encounter with a dictionary. It was Cat in the Hat’s Beginner Dictionary by Dr. Seuss (actually P.D. Eastman, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Are you my Mother? ) This pictorial dictionary for children was silly and mostly useless, but I regarded it as a serious dictionary until I came to the letter Z. The Z section only had 4 Z words (zebra, zipper zoo), but the last Z word really threw me: Zyjgyduf. Unlike the other words, I had never heard of this one and couldn’t even pronounce it. What did it mean? A screenshot is unavailable, but I can describe the accompanying illustration (which was the largest in the entire book). It was a large nest filled with about 20 small birds with beaks open. Underneath was the caption: A Zyjgyduf of birds.
I was only 7, but I went to the library and consulted several gigantic adult dictionaries to learn more about this mysterious Zyjgyduf word. Finally, with the librarian’s help, I found Dr. Seuss’s mailing address and wrote him a letter asking for a clearer definition.
But Dr. Seuss never wrote me back. That stuck-up bastard.