New Dictionaries

18 10 2009

The Sunday New York Times is one of my favorite indulgences.  Give me my coffee and the (online) Sunday Magazine and I’m on my way to a good week.  While I never agreed with William Safire’s politics, his articles were always interesting and thought provoking.  Since he was older, I never expected him to “grok” technology entirely – but he never wrote anything totally off base about technology.  Since his passing, the article has been guest written, mostly by Ammon Shea and Ben Zimmer.

In today’s On Language column, Ammon Shea writes about old dictionaries.  Some that people use that are so old that don’t include the word airplane, let alone words like internet and w00t, or the ones that Scalia uses from the 17th century.  He ends his column by discussing print dictionaries that are passed down from generation to generation and what the future of that will look like :

As people increasingly rely on Internet dictionaries and other online reference works, it seems that passing down an ancestral book will become more and more of a rarity and that keeping older versions of these books will become exclusively the province of the professional and the persnickety. Although who knows? Perhaps one day a child shown a dictionary will be told, ‘This is the very same HTML that your grandfather read when he was your age.”

There are a few things about this that confuse me:

  1. Internet dictionaries can still include older reference works – the OED includes more words because it’s online and therefore makes it a better keeper of language.  Older versions of the books can still be kept online.  It no longer needs to fit on a shelf so there’s less need to weed the words.  Since he’s the guy who read the OED (and wrote a book about it), I’m surprised at his take on this.
  2. Why would a child be shown a dictionary and told it’s the same HTML their grandfather read?  Would they look at the page source to look at the code?  Because otherwise you’re seeing the rendered HTML.
  3. Wouldn’t coding have changed by the time the grandchild views it?  Can’t we hope for more from our web tools rather than expect them to remain static?
  4. Is the HTML code the appropriate analogy for the book?  Isn’t HTML more appropriately compared to the printing press?  Maybe someday the grandchild will look at our ebook readers, laptops or iphones and have nostalgia for this outmoded technology.

Maybe I’m one of the persnickety (okay, I’m definitely persnickety) but I love technology as much as I love books and hate the confusion of form and function.  Until we get to the point of the contacts from Minority Report, there’s still a physical representation of books – even if it’s a multipurpose device that has more than one book on it.  I also wonder if book will be the most appropriate term for an online dictionary.  Online dictionaries are databases, not books, and are already being arranged in more useful ways than just alphabetically.  These changes are making dictionaries, and language, accessible to more people and that’s more important to education than the handing down of old books.

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