Guestblogging Dictionary Myths:

Part 2: The Myth of the Online Dictionary

So (as several of you have asked in the comments, with varying levels of plaintiveness) why don’t dictionaries just go completely online, and include every word? There’d be none of this stupid in-or-out waffling on the part of the lexicographers; they could just muster the words in an orderly fashion and march them onto the web, break for a long lunch, and go home early.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of this include-everything-on-the-web idea. I’m seethingly impatient for it. I want it hot, fresh, and now, and I’m grumpy that I don’t have it yet.

Don’t have it yet? But what about OED.com, dictionary.com, onelook.com, bartleby.com, m-w.com, Wiktionary, OmegaWiki … there’s no shortage of dictionaries you can see online. What there’s a shortage of is true Online Dictionaries.

A dictionary online is just a print dictionary translated to the web, with little, if any, attention paid to the advantages of web delivery. A few links, a couple of different font options — that’s it. The basic arrangement, format, layout … those remain largely unchanged. (A couple of the online dictionaries don’t even allow full-text search inside definitions! So if you can’t remember the word, you can’t triangulate it by looking for words you think might be used in its definition.)

Everything in the dictionary-online is still seen through the lens of print, and what print needs. The web is an afterthought. Even the wiki-style dictionaries (which I am all in favor of, and I’m on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation) are largely based on print ideals of organization and inclusion. (Even Wiktionary wants words to be at least a year old before they are included in the project.)

A true Online Dictionary would be created with the web in mind. And it might not look the way we think a dictionary “should” look at all!

Print dictionary layout is optimized (or possibly ossified) for print delivery. Dictionary layout has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years: look at a page of Johnson’s Dictionary, and you recognize it immediately: “That’s a dictionary.” But is that format, time-tested as it is, the best one for an online dictionary? I am not convinced it is. But no dictionary that I’m aware of is testing what a true online dictionary would or should or could look like.

Not only do I think the macrostructure of the dictionary will have to change online, I believe the microstructure of the entry probably will too. Do lexicographers still need to be crafting tight little knots of definitions if the pressure to explain everything in three lines or less is no longer there? Where’s the sweet spot between “short, but impenetrable” and “too long for quick comprehension … okay, now you’re an encyclopedia”?

Because lexicographers’ time isn’t infinite, even if the web seems nearly so, they will still have to figure out the process of herding all the words into the new online dictionary. (I can see entries accreting over time as evidence of use piles up; the first embryonic uses of word barely showing, with only one or two lonely examples, and the older words becoming like huge dripping stalactites as they accumulate hundreds of examples. You could gauge the longevity of a word by the shape of its entry.)

Before we can have a real Online Dictionary we have to figure out how people will use it, what they really need and what they simply want. Then we can figure out what it will look like, how it will behave, and what it should contain.

We also need to figure out how we can fund it. How will people pay for online dictionary content, if at all? Per word micropayments? Subscriptions? A tiered subscription with basic words being free, but harder or rarer words costing more? Paying a fee through their ISP? Taking it not-for-profit and being funded by grants? Advertising? Charging people to add their own words or definitions? (I’m just kidding about that last part, but I can imagine some people wouldn’t be.) Pretty much the only funding option not available for the online dictionary is putting it between hard covers and selling it for $24.95 in Barnes and Noble … because then you have to make the online dictionary with print in mind.

The true Online Dictionary is still a myth, sadly. But every day I think about how to make it into reality.