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Should we still buy dictionaries? (My quest for the elusive Zyjgyduf)

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!drseuss

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.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Steven Marzuola 2/16/2010, 2:32 pm

    One of my favorite Dr. Seuss books:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Beyond_Zebra!

  • Arun Prabhu 6/20/2010, 2:48 am

    My View
    [Quote] 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? [/Quote]

    Hey! Come on. AHD the greatest dictionary? Maybe in the US, for the rest of the world it was Oxford and it always will be. More people follow Br.English than NA.English any day.

    – Arun

  • Robert Nagle 6/20/2010, 10:14 pm

    The expanded/multivolume Oxford English Dictionary is the best dictionary, but impractical in many situations. Also, I find it not particularly useful.

    Other than that, I have not found the Oxford dictionaries very helpful except for students learning the language. Also, the Oxford dictionaries tend to be smaller than many dictionaries. (But you’re right; British English is more commonly taught outside America).

    I’m a writer who needs to know advanced things and subtle meanings, so my needs may be different from the typical word-hunter.

    One thing about the American Heritage Dictionary is that the physical book is beautiful to look at. Also, they have extended definitions & discussions, and those are excellent. In the 1990s American scholar William Saphire called AHD the best English dictionary, and I agreed at the time (and that was after I looked at a lot of dictionaries at bookstores). I was teaching English in Eastern Europe at the time, so dictionaries were important to me.

    But after 2000, I’ve seen other dictionaries pop up (not to mention the Internet), and I was pleasantly surprised at the New Oxford American Dictionary (and I bought it for $25, a steal).

    When I compared definitions, the thing that interested me was second and third definitions of the same word. Some dictionaries don’t give a lot of those, but the New oxford American dictionary did an especially good job for that.

    (By the way, I have no idea why it is called the New Oxford American dictionary; the definitions don’t seem particularly Americanized, and the usage notes are both English and american).

    Nowadays of course, I’m relying more on web definitions. Usually not as succinct, but more information overall.

    I thought this remark on amazon was interesting:

    American users should be alerted to the fact that the “New Oxford American Dictionary” is founded on the “New Oxford Dictionary of English,” which has been retitled the “Oxford Dictionary of English.” The NODE and the ODE, when considered on their own, are excellent–especially when one realizes that they place contemporary English usage in a global context, which is helpful for both ESL students and US citizens who may be unaware that international nuances exist. So, the chief problem with the NOAD is that it presents itself as being American but cannot escape from being essentially British in outlook. As a result, many strange definitions and usage examples are to be found when considered from an American perspective. For those who wish to use a one-volume dictionary that more adequately represents American English as it is spoken and used in the United States, the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary or the Webster’s New World College Dictionary would seem to be preferable to the NOAD, with the ODE or the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary being consulted for more obscure words and definitions, or for obtaining a better idea of how English is used internationally.

    (I just wanted to say: Random House Webster’s is a terrible dictionary!)

  • M 2/15/2011, 9:44 am

    Hello,
    I am a nonnative speaker of English. Could you please explain why do you think that Random House Webster’s is a terrible dictionary? It was one of my favorites, until I discovered Dictionary Tooltip (I’m lazy…)… Also, for reviewing, you might consider using a piece of SRS software called Anki – Works for me and for the whole community of http://www.ajatt.com, which is by the way probably sending you some traffic these days, after the site owner tweeted the vocabulary post 🙂

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