Who Needs Dictionaries in 2016?
This blog-post serves to re-cap the talk given by Michael Rundell (henceforth MR), editor-in-chief of Macmillan dictionaries, at the University of Sussex’s English colloquium on the 7th of December 2016. It also serves as an introduction to some contemporary and some enduring controversies in lexicography. MR’s abstract asserted that dictionaries in print form were ‘going the way of the dodo’. Despite this, MR was optimistic that although digitalisation is necessary, the nature of this transition can be controlled by lexicographers, which, if done well, could provide the catalyst for a new dawn in lexicography. Before we go any further, what exactly is ‘lexicography’, and what is a ‘lexicographer’? As the entry for ‘lexicographer’ in his famous dictionary of 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson, known for possessing an excess of whimsy, mischievously wrote “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge…”. More contemporarily, MR’s dictionary, Macmillan, defines ‘lexicography’ as “the job of writing dictionaries”. Yet this definition creates as many questions as it answers. How does one write dictionaries? In the age of Google is dictionary writing still relevant? These questions and more were answered by MR. In the blog post below I attempt to relay some of the insight and wisdom that he espoused as well as adding some observations of my own.
MR discussing the addition of ‘bawbag’ into Macmillan’s online dictionary.
MR began his talk by dissecting a quote from an article written by Allan Brown in The Times (2009) in which Brown referred to lexicographers as “white-haired, cardiganed index-carded old duffers … boffinish, pedantic and obsessed; for them the words disinterested and uninterested are as distinct as lions and tigers”. As well as the demonstrably aesthetic falsities of this statement (e.g. sartorial preferences and hair colour), the methodological practices that Brown assumes remain current, e.g., the use of index cards, MR assures us were left behind in the early 1980s (although more recently in the U.S.A.). This was the first of many preconceptions about lexicography and lexicographers that MR proceeded to refute. Lexicography has become a remarkably modern endeavor. Armed with mind-bogglingly large corpora, lexicographers use computational tools to mine almost infinite linguistic data in order to detect subtle semantic change or lexical innovation. Lexicography has become a quasi-scientific practice, yet, as is all too common, public perception trails reality by a number of decades.
“What’s your favourite word?”, “doesn’t it just annoy you terribly when people use [insert innovative semantic usage/ lexical item] in this way…?”, “so do you get to decide what becomes a real word?”. Such are the questions with which lexicographers are bombarded in any social situation in which they reveal their true identity- a dictionary-maker. After over 35 years as a lexicographer, MR explained that such questions indicate a near ubiquitous misunderstanding of dictionaries and of those who make them. Lexicographers are not ‘gatekeepers’ of a language, and nor do they want to be. In a seminal talk to the philological society in 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench argued that the role of lexicographers should be akin to that of historians, not critics. In Britain, lexicographers have largely been faithful to this central commandment. However, the contrast between what MR (and his colleagues) would like to be, and what the bulk of his readership (the lay-public) would like them to be, is indicative of an ideological schism between the lexicographer and dictionary user. It appears that authoritarianism sells dictionaries. This is antithetical Trench’s ‘lexicographer as historian’ idealisation. Although lexicographers must be intensely interested in language, it is the consensus from within the field that they should be disinterested the lexical composition of their dictionary. MR outlined various criteria based on longevity and frequency of use throughout a corpus, particularly across sub-corpora, which are necessary for a new lexical entry in a Macmillan dictionary. As such, whether or not a word makes it into a dictionary is based on quantitative, not qualitative, criteria.
Lexicographers can wax lyrical about the nuances of their dictionary and the beauty of serendipitous word-discovery experiences (see Erin McKean’s TED talk) with which they are so well acquainted. However, the extent to which the lexicographers’ experience of a dictionary differs to that of its prototypical user could hardly be more different. Dictionaries often provide the battle-ground for the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. Although MR firmly positioned himself and the vast majority of other lexicographers on the descriptive side of this enduring controversy, many readers are ardent prescriptivists. Lynch (2009: 224—5) suggests that for some prescriptivists “admitting ain’t into the dictionary seemed tantamount to handing over America’s nuclear launch codes to Nikita Krushchev”. As a result, lexicographers are faced with a trade-off. Do they forgo some of their lexicographical integrity and dismiss the advice of Richard Chenevix Trench, or do they stay true to their descriptive ideals, possibly at the expense of selling dictionaries?
Lexicography and Linguistic Controversy
A language is the ultimate user-generated-content. Even if they wanted to, lexicographers would be powerless to contribute linguistic change. William Labov (see 2010) often uses the metaphor of ‘ocean currents’ to describe linguistic change. Literally using a dictionary to counter these ocean currents is a spectacularly doomed endeavour. Despite almost every lexicographer’s vehement denial of their role as arbiters of language, it is how they are perceived by most dictionary users, and therefore, their de facto role in society. This is not surprising, as Curzan (2000: 91) notes, “‘look it up in the dictionary’ is a mantra learnt early in life”. The use of the definite determiner, the, before dictionary implicitly refers to an “abstraction that transcends all specifics, such as publishers, editors, dates, or editions” (Curzan ibid.) MR explained that this monolithic perception of dictionaries could hardly be further from the truth. Each dictionary is motivated and ultimately shaped by editorial policy. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely considered to be ‘descriptive about prescriptivism’. That is, prescriptive attitudes are reflected in the dictionary’s lexical entries without being endorsed. This balanced, pragmatic approach to lexicography which serves to appease both prescriptivists and descriptivists is by no means a universal of lexicography. A case in point is the entry for ain’t in the first-edition of the Random House Dictionary an American dictionary, published in 1966. The usage note that accompanied a frankly dismissive lexical entry for ain’t is as follows:
Ain’t is so traditionally and widely regarded as a nonstandard form that it should be shunned by all who prefer to avoid being considered illiterate. Ain’t occurs occasionally in the informal speech of some educated users, especially in self-consciously or folksy or humorous contexts, but it is completely unacceptable in formal writing and speech… the well-advised person will avoid any use of ain’t
It is important to view the first edition of the RHD in context. It was a part of a larger reactionary prescriptive lexicography in the 1960s, along with the ‘American Heritage Dictionary’, which began in order to fill the prescriptive lexicographical niche which formed as Webster’s dictionary (now Miriam-Webster) effectively abdicated their role as arbiters of the (American) English language by employing a more descriptive approach. This shift in editorial policy invoked a maelstrom of prescriptive outrage and was undoubtedly responsible for a wave of tutting (for the phoneticians amongst you, the dental click ⟨ǀ⟩), head-shaking, and fist-shaking across America. It was claimed that the editors of Webster’s 3rd “made a sop of the solid structure of English” and that the dictionary destroyed “every obstinate vestige of linguistic punctilio, every surviving influence that makes for the upholding of standards” (see Sledd and Ebbitt (1962) for more choleric outbursts of prescriptivism from contemporary journalists). On the other side of the Atlantic, in England, the lexicographic tradition has been much more inclusive, owing largely to the descriptive outlook of the OED. Yet still, Victorian sensibilities prevented many taboo words from entering the first edition of the OED. Gradually, as dictionaries began to more accurately reflect the contemporary state of the language such words have become commonplace in many, at least most unabridged, dictionaries.
The Future of Dictionaries
Although it is obvious that lexicographer’s hands are being forced into digitalising their content, this is something that many dictionaries, including Macmillan, have embraced. To remain competitive in this digital age, lexicographers must evolve in response to socio-cultural/ technological changes. After all, dictionaries must remain economically viable. In the age of Google, most publishers are very much aware that paper dictionaries are becoming less relevant to the everyday end-user. Dictionary apps are now widely used. Not only do these have the obvious advantages such as increased mobility and searchability, but the IPA transcriptions- with a nice target-audience- of paper-dictionaries have been augmented by exemplar pronunciations which can be heard on demand by a much wider audience. Such practical functionality perpetuates the need for dictionaries. The descriptive formula for lexicography is now, to varying extents, rather ubiquitous. For dictionaries to survive in such a competitive marketplace, it is innovation that will be the point of difference between those dictionaries that thrive, and those which, to use MR’s phrase, ‘go the way of the Dodo’ (e.g. Chamber’s dictionary). By employing corpus-based methods, MR argued that, better than ever, lexicographers can keep up to date with the latest lexical and semantic innovations. However, again, lexicographers must consider the role of the end-user. MR was critical of the interface used by many now-online dictionaries. User friendliness/ ease of use is a central concern to online dictionaries. Such dictionaries have many advantages over their physical counterparts. For example, they do not have to be abridged. Many paper dictionaries must make a conscious decision to omit many lexical entries and/or supplementary metalinguistic information from their print editions, simply as a result of a lack of space. If they did not do so, dictionary would become impracticably cumbersome and filled with proper nouns and incredibly niche scientific jargon. In cyber-space, the would-be paper-Brobdingnag, becomes accessible through something as small as a mobile-phone.
Online dictionaries can act as a springboard to a range of other lexical semantic or lexicographic material. For MR, this is the key point-of-difference between paper and online dictionaries. For example, many dictionaries have a sister thesaurus, which can be accessed online through nothing but a click of a button. Moreover, detailed phonetic, etymological or usage-based information can be included. Such information would overwhelm the archetypal user of a paper dictionary. Yet, by making this information accessible through a simple click, online dictionaries can restrict this information so that only those that actively seek it are exposed to it. Those who are simply looking up the meaning of a word need not drown in the vast information that is available. Another substantial advantage of online dictionaries is that mistakes can be quickly rectified (dictionary writers are not lexicographic automatons- they are prone to error!). Moreover, innovations can be added as soon as the lexicographers believe that a new word or sense justifies inclusion. Whereas the production of paper dictionaries would dictate that innovative forms could not be included until the next print-edition, online dictionaries can add or retract content almost instantaneously. Flexibility need not stop at the traditional lexicographical aspects such as lexical entries. Additional content, such as Word of the Dayfeatures, or interactive materials such as crosswords or word searches can be continually updated or withdrawn.
Although traditional print-dictionaries are rapidly becoming antiquated, it seems that online dictionaries have begun to drag lexicography and its reputation as the work of “white-haired old-duffers” into the 21st century. By appropriating digital tools and repurposing the functional purpose dictionaries, it appears that they will continue to perform their role as to not only to reflect the state of language, but as a pedagogical tool which can also serve to incite a widespread interest in linguistic, particularly lexical semantic, usage. This is in contrast to the pejorative view of linguistic change that has hitherto dominated public discourse on the matter. Dictionaries have a role to play as a bridge between linguistics and the general public. With over 35 years of experience in lexicography, MR has seen a veritable lexicographic revolution. The practice of lexicography now is almost unrecognisable from that which he first learnt working on COBUILD in the early 1980s. Lexicography has evolved rapidly in the past 30 years. In order to stay relevant, it must continue to do so. With lexicographers such as MR who embrace, not only linguistic but also technological, change, dictionaries surely do have a role to play in the future.
Back- Rhys Sandow (Doctoral Researcher), Margarita Yagudaeva (Doctoral Researcher)- Centre- Michael Rundell- Front- Dr. Lynne Cahill, Dr. Lynne Murphy.
Rhys Sandow - doctoral researcher
Curzan, Anne. 2000. Lexicography and questions of authority in the college classroom: Students “deconstructing the dictionary”. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 21, 90—99.
Labov, William. 2010. Principles of Linguistic Change: Cognitive Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lynch, Jack, 2009. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma. New York: Walker and Company.
Sledd, James. & Ebbitt, Wilma. 1962. Dictionaries and “That” Dictionary: A Casebook on the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers. Chicago: Scott, Foresman.
TED. 2012. Erin McKean: Redefining the Dictionary [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov-Sh8UDnhU&t=628s.