The English Dictionary

The Future of the Dictionary


On the 15th April 1755, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published for the first time. His book, which he complied with the help of six assistants, took eight years to compile. Listing 40,000 words, each of which was defined in detail, it was the most comprehensive to date.

Johnson was accused of being something of a snob. He frequently chose to use words in his book which the majority of the British population would never use and could never understand (such as ‘deosculation’). He also famously managed to offend the population of Scotland when he defined the word Oats as ‘A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’

Despite his ability to offend and annoy, Samuel Johnson was widely respected for his academic achievement, and his dictionary was extremely popular. But what of the dictionary today? In a world of digital downloads, online dictionaries and spelling and grammar checkers, as well as language learning packages on our computers, tablets and phones, is the future of the paperback dictionary in danger of extinction?

Speaking on the subject, Stephen Bullon, Macmillan Education’s Publisher for Dictionaries, said, “Our research tells us that most people today get their reference information via their computer, tablet, or phone, and the message is clear and unambiguous: the future of the dictionary is digital.” This opinion would certainly reflect the modern drive towards the majority of reading matter. Newspapers, magazines, journals and novels are increasingly being read on digital devices rather than via their traditional paper constructions.

It was in the mid nineteenth century, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that the consumer market for dictionaries saw its first major expansion with paper and books becoming more generally affordable and the number of people who could read and write slowly increasing.
However, there have never been many producers of the paperback dictionary in the UK. The most well known being those coming from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and those produced by Collins. Of these, however, there are hundreds of varieties, from children’s illustrated dictionaries to short pocket dictionaries, to the full catalogue of the Oxford English Dictionary which runs into dozens of volumes.

Despite this, sales of paperback dictionaries are currently in steep decline. When talking to The Irish Times, Dr Chris Mulhall, a language lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology explained, “The depleting value of the paper dictionary goes hand-in-hand with a declining use of the printed word and our growing interaction with technology… But the view of technology as a potential distraction in the classroom offers a lifeline to the future of the pocket-sized paper dictionary so perennially loved and loathed by students in language classes…. They (paper dictionaries) should be viewed as complementary, symbiotic objects in the educational space: one diligently providing a structured picture of language within a networked lexical, semantic and syntactic system, the other hurriedly rushing to offer multiple translations or definitions for our information gaps. Paper dictionaries narrate the value and changes of our past and present. Electronic dictionaries, on the other hand, will define how we see the future. There is a value to both functions.”

Whether Dr Mulhall is correct or not, only time can tell. In a world where knowledge is acquired via an instant trip to Google (as we usually learn on a need-to-know basis rather than via a trip to the library to pick up a book on the subject), where spelling can be checked during the writing process itself, and where our foreign pronunciation can be spoken to us via our computer’s speakers, the continued existence of the physical copy dictionary must be in some doubt. Personally, I really hope not. Dr Samuel Johnson would certainly not approve.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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