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Elitism in online dictionaries


'Online dictionaries' by Chris Johnston'Words, words between the lines of age,' sings Neil Young. His bittersweet song about relationships makes us dwell on how words that are meant to say everything are still just words. Sometimes they are all we have, and we try to say it the best way we can. We do not always succeed, and that is not just because of the words. But we will go on trying, we are all caught up in the daily traffic of words.

The lyric also reminds us that words themselves are born, alter, age, transmute, and even die. Their meaning shifts through time and may have a completely different — need I say awesomely different — meaning between age groups, regions, times and educations.

This has never been truer than in the case of 21st century English, the lingua franca of the planet. The sheer variety and vitality of usage across every continent by those for whom English is first, second, third, even 23rd language brings us rather too quickly to the whole matter of meaning.

Meaning is a service of online dictionaries, but not always their forte. Meaning is what online dictionaries purport to supply, but how thoroughly and deeply depends on the purposes of their makers. Meaning is the aim of dictionaries, but whose meaning? And when were the definitions created?

Thoughts like this fizzed in my mind each time I visited Merriam-Webster, which was for a time the main internet dictionary through a process of availability, popularity, and algorithms. Samuel Johnson famously defined oats as 'a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people'. Merriam-Webster was not so susceptible to prejudice and gave short, straightforward definitions that were simple fare indeed.

Merriam-Webster now seems to have gone the way of all business, so we turn to The Free Dictionary (American Heritage and Collins) which gives four definitions for oats, no history, and unhelpful links to muesli websites.

Better in this regard is dictionary.com (Random House) with six definitions and history of origins, including 'sowing of wild oats', the kind reported frequently in James Boswell's journals and studiously overlooked by his friend Johnson. But in none of these are we given an idea of which usages are the most common, nor is a date placed on archaic uses of 'oats'.

This site has a voice box to click for pronunciation, which is good if you wish to say 'oats' like someone from Massachusetts.

The poet W.H. Auden kept the 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary in his writing room: he once called the room 'the cave of making'. At an older age his set had become so over-used it was falling apart and he considered purchasing a new one. Today the OED is online, so Auden would have had to subscribe, then renew that subscription each year. He would have foregone the pleasure of paging through entries at leisure for the rigour of pointing at entries with a cursor.

This might be okay if he wanted both the latest and the least meanings of a word, or wished to identify earliest uses of that word in any of its usages, but it would have cramped a serendipitous reading style that presented Auden with variations of a word, and have prohibited him from mining the forgotten words he set into his lapidary late poems.

In many ways this has always been the choice, between the concision of the popular prescriptive dictionary and the expansiveness of the great descriptive dictionaries like the OED. When we want a quick definition, we want a dictionary that matches our word in short order. This can be a problem when assessing new words. When we are translating, we want all uses of the word, proceeding by common usage.

The quality of internet definitions can be woeful, or wonderful, which is due in part to its democratic range of choice. The free online internet still needs to be treated with caution as a final reference authority and it is sometimes a worry to know that globally people turn to this source for definitive meanings every day.

Despite appearances, the forgoing grump is not aimed at the internet, but at the lack of thoroughness in free online dictionaries. You say tomarto and I say tomayto. The free ones are too often bland and incomplete in their definitions, while those that are complex and exhaustive require a credit card. Quality, it seems, comes at a price. This divide between what is free and what has a price tag on the internet is an increasing educational issue. Rich institutions and individuals can pay for the words we all use, while others cannot, or just do not.

But then maybe it's the internet itself that has become one big dictionary and our task is learning how to read it as we would any other new reference work at home or in our libraries and offices.

I first heard the word 'bogan' over 20 years ago. It seemed to describe very imprecisely certain kinds of young men who loitered on railway stations and plazas. They wore running shoes, black clothes, loose cardigans and never combed their hair. In my mind's eye they resembled Kurt Cobain, but Cobain probably wasn't a bogan. The free online dictionaries today maintain that a bogan is simply a tranquil stretch of water found in Canada.

But interestingly, Wikipedia itself has the best overall perspective on this term. Its entry includes links to dedicated bogan websites, leaving one to understand that while 'bogan' is a term of derision for some, for others it is a badge of honour.

The OED does not provide this kind of sweep, and if you can pay for the inestimably worthy Macquarie, one of our seriously undervalued literary creations, you will be told that bogan is a colloquial noun (mildly derogatory) for 'a person, generally from an outer suburb of a city or town and from a lower socio-economic background, viewed as uncultured. Compare barry, bennie, boonie, Charlene, Charmaine, cogger, feral; especially Qld bevan; Chiefly Qld bev-chick; WA bog; ACT booner; ACT charnie bum; Tasmania chigger; Riverina gullie; Melbourne Region mocca; Victoria scozzer; Chiefly NSW westie.'

These last are baffling even to many of the locals, let alone the global villagers who read this terminology beyond the land girt by sea.

Neil Young's lyric plays with the expression 'reading between the lines', that process not just reserved for poetry and government documents where the actual meaning of the words is less important than the implied meaning.

Another positive of treating the internet as a dictionary is the stupendous number of uses we can find for any one word. Those with the time can be extracting examples of the word in every setting, whether in its plain use, its minor uses, or its subtle 'between the lines' uses.

By comparison, Samuel Johnson only had his memory to draw on, a circle of friends, and a substantial library. Prizes go to the best Johnsonian pronouncement upon being shown the internet.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 


Topic tags: Philip Harvey, online dictionaries, wikipedia



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Herewith is a critical webography of online dictionaries. They are not arranged in any precise order, only as I find them online. I will keep adding to this list over time, as new dictionaries are discovered. You are invited to add your own favourites, and constructive critical remarks are most welcome.

Alpha Dictionary
This site claims to give access to 1065 online English dictionaries at once. The subject dictionary pages are exemplary in the field. Very amazing is the page with links to dictionaries of other languages. "Of the roughly 6,912 known languages and dialects in the world," it says (I like the word 'roughly'),"only 2,287 have writing systems and only about 300 have online dictionaries." For collectors, here is its bibliography of the English ones: http://www.alphadictionary.com/directory/Languages/Germanic/English/

As with everything wiki, you can edit the entries yourself, with all the advantages and pitfalls that go with that. This leads to the disconcerting experience of finding words without definitions; Wiktionary is still waiting for them, which surely defeats the purpose of having a dictionary in the first place.

The Urban Dictionary
One of the best of the new term dictionaries and, unlike Wikipedia, each entry is loaded and defined by a true believer in the value of their word, i.e. no stubs. More than one meaning may be contributed to a single word, and visitors can click thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the definitions, an online etymology committee of self-appointees. Samuel Johnson said it was the poets who make the language, and The Urban Dictionary is worth visiting just to get a poetic cross-section of the world we now live in.

Sources standard English dictionaries in digital form, like Chambers and Macmillan, but also draws on Rogets, Flikr images, and Twitter. People who contribute are wordniks. The lists generated on the site are charming. For example, when I visited these were ten Recently Loved Words: praecordia, vociferous, serenity, tergiversate, azalea, canoodle, fecundity, onus, memento mori, demur. Memento mori is two words, but terms and phrases circulate through the site too.

Johnson’s Dictionary
Here is the digital edition of the 1755 classic. Much has been written about this book, but of crucial importance is Johnson’s decision halfway through compilation that English is not a language restricted by rules of inclusion. This move went against the Academy spirit of the 18th century, especially in France where a club still decides what is proper French. This vital difference is one reason for the creative and inventive energy of English to this day. The work is downloadable from here http://archive.org/details/dictionaryofengl01johnuoft

PHILIP HARVEY | 26 March 2012  

A web log, Sir, is the minute by minute charting of the voyages of a ship without a rudder.

Penelope | 26 March 2012  

Tech Terms
This is a specialist dictionary of terms for computer techheads, or anyone who has to know the bits and bobs of IT language. Outwit the geeks with this constantly updated vocabulary.

Calls itself the online dictionary for computer and internet technology. When I went on, among the recent terms added on the home page was nomophobia, "fear of being out of mobile phone contact." It seems a sense of security takes all sorts of forms, not just the form of a dictionary.

Behind the Name
There are several personal name dictionaries online. This and http://www.thinkbabynames.com/ are better than average, with etymologies and histories. Its homebase is revealed by a current popularity chart for each name use in the United States. The best name dictionary giving specific Australian currency and specificity is still only in print form. The citation is difficult to suppy as I have only ever seen this book once, in a paediatrician’s waiting room. This is proof that print is still way ahead of digital in all sorts of areas, and is easier to handle.

Gazetteer on Wikipedia
Curiously, this is one of the best search engines for place name site links that I could find on the internet. Place names are thick on the ground but place name (or toponymic) dictionaries are thin in the ether. For example, the Survey of English Place Names at the University of Nottingham http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/ins/survey/list-of-volumes.aspx is full to the horizon with volumes of its findings, but blowed if any of them are available online. There are gazetteers galore, but in any one of them you are hard pressed to find why a place was given its name. We can find anywhere in the world via Google Maps and the NGA GEOnet Names Server but still cannot be told how half these places got their names.

http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/Graesse/contents.html http://net.lib.byu.edu/~catalog/people/rlm/latin/names.htm
Orbis Latinus & the RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names
Two sites for anyone requiring the modern equivalent of Latin place names. These sites are favourites of rare book cataloguers like myself, who need to locate the place of publication of the 16th century Latin text (mint condition) that has just crossed the desk.

PHILIP HARVEY | 26 March 2012  

Produced by the dictionary.com people, this site comes close to the old-fashioned one-volume quick answer encyclopedias found in studies and kitchens. It draws on authoritative reference sources (e.g. Britannica, Columbia) with quality-controlled entries. Great for handheld screens.

About.com Guide
Is the paucity of free online dictionaries for editors and writers symptomatic of the internet’s inability to handle usage? Do editors and writers today still reach for the paper page when correcting the idiosyncratic digital spelling of a contributor? No doubt many in-house dictionaries are available as pdf downloads, but when we must go to the oracle it is either by subscription (Chicago Manual of Style) or is still being printed with ink (Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors). The link above is to the top ten such works according to the New York Times: all still in book form in 2012.

The Online Slang Dictionary
This is the oldest slang dictionary (1996) on the internet. Slang has a short half-life. The borderline between new terms (cf. The Urban Dictionary) and slang is blurry. While many of the words here have stayed current, others have already acquired quaintness. (When will someone put Eric Partridge online?) There are several Australian slang sites, most of them rough around the edges and lacking a theory of taxonomy. Macquarie is to be preferred, though places like this are fun to drop in on: http://www.aussieslang.org/

Some people need their daily dose and word-a-day email services tend to this neurological craving. The New York Times has called this one "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace." Subscription is free, with over a million linguaphiles on the list. Another popular one comes from Oxford Dictionaries: http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/word-of-the-day You just sign up.

Scrabble Finder
Provides all those zany, quirky words that fit tidily into a triple word score. The beauty of this site is its links to multiple definitions and obscure wacky words. The down side is that some of them are non-existent words that are anagrams of real ones; presumably this is in keeping with the mind pattern of total devotees.

PHILIP HARVEY | 26 March 2012  

In May of 1988 my wife and I visited an elderly distant cousin in West Sussex. She had written a noted biography of her grand-father, editor of the New English Dictionary (based on historical principles) - soon to be known as the OED - because published by the Clarendon Press - James A.H. MURRAY "Caught in the Web of Words" 1977 (first published by Yale Press). I held in my hands the first volume published - and much worn...and in another volume I searched for the word dinkum (as in "fair dinkum") but it wasn't there! Which has its own further tale - not important here. Yes, the differences between turning over the pages and the incidental discoveries made thereby - and the input of a specific word online! Chalk and cheese!

Jim KABLE | 26 March 2012  

I'm surprised the Macquarie Dictionary wasn't mentioned (whose full version requires subscription for online use). It's the spelling/style guide for lots of Aussie publications and I also refer to it for words that the Microsoft Word spell check doesn't recognise, like "emu"!

AURELIUS | 27 March 2012  

Aurelius, the Macquarie was mentioned - 5th last paragraph. As for MS Word, you need to set your dictionary language to English (Australian) and it will recognise "emu".

ErikH | 27 March 2012  

My favourite resource is the online etymology dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/

Zac | 27 March 2012  

My oversight. Yes my Microscopic Work is set to English (Australian) - but doesn't recognise emus.... for some strange reason. Luckily I as a flesh and blood Aussie know how to recognise an emu, and also a chook when I see one.

AURELIUS | 27 March 2012  

Aurelius, I have found that the 'UK English' setting in the spellchecker in Word seems to more accurately reflect correct Australian English than the 'Australian English' setting, which tends to be a hybrid of UK and US spellings. Not sure how 'UK English' goes with 'emu' though.

Charles Boy | 27 March 2012  

Interesting article.

I was inspired to phone bookshops to see if I could buy a 'good' English dictionary on CD. No one had one for sale. I am surprised.

John Hiller | 27 March 2012  

Hi, Aurelius. Maybe it's the version of Word you are using. I'm using Word 2007. Emu is recognised in both Australian and UK English and, now that I check it, in US English also. Curious.

ErikH | 27 March 2012  

This is why we invented public libraries! If I go to the website of my local library and type in my borrower number I can access Oxford dictionaries. If I go to my State Library website and type in my borrower number I have access to manay encyclopedias and dictionaries. If I wasn't fortunate to have access to those I can go to the National Library website and type in my user number and have access to Oxford, Macquarie etc etc. They're all there for you, you've paid for them with your taxes. If you don't use them and value them, and lobby for more, we'll all lose them.

Russell | 28 March 2012  

Congratulations on a rich piece, Philip. Thank you.

Joe Castley | 28 March 2012  

Chancing on the internet, Johnson remembers his own definition for ‘network’: ‘Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.’ I feel like that myself sometimes when I’m online. Johnson quoted Edmund Spenser in the Dictionary as an example of the use of ‘network’, lines equally applicable to the finery of the internet:
Nor any skill’d in workmanship emboss’d;
Nor any skill’d in loops of fing’ring fine;
Might in their diverse cunning ever dare,
With this so curious network to compare. Spenser.

VICTORIA BEAUMONT | 28 March 2012  

Great 'words for thought' and thanks too for the web links with summaries. 'Russell' in the comments described his modus operandi through libraries which was my thought also.

The importance of libraries in the information society and the digital environment needs to be shouted from the hilltops to one and all. With the $ spent on NBN and aiming to make Australia 'a leading digital global economy' by 2020' http://www.nbn.gov.au/the-vision/ Australians need to know they have free access via their public and state libraries and National Library of Australia. But none of this matters unless there are plenty of FREE 'digital literacy' initiatives via public libraries, community colleges, TAFES, schools (banks of school computers sit unused from 3:15 pm thru to 8:30am & weekends) Hand in hand with these need to be 'literacy' opportunities dovetailed to these since English is the majority language of the internet. Despite icons, touchscreens, video clips of demonstrations, etc. being 'able to read' is vital.

I'm thinking online word games for adults using online dictionaries to develop a combined literacy/digital literacy program. As I write this, realise such programs must already exists...just need to search the internet and find them.
Ciao. (A librarian.)

Mary Liesch | 30 March 2012  

Planet Facts
Just as definitions of words can be found by googling ‘orange the word’ say if you want meanings for Orange, so specialist term lists can be found by entering the term followed by ‘dictionary’. This wonderful site of astronomical words was found by simply keying in ‘space dictionary’. Another good site is this one for children, the NASA picture dictionary: http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/dictionary/index.html

Clock Dictionary
As further proof, at random I typed in the first word that came to mind (‘clock dictionary’) only to discover this incredible site. Every imaginable kind of timepiece is explained, as well as all the technical terms of clock-making. The definitions here go into infinitely more detail than for the same word in any standard dictionary, even the OED, which shows why we need to get cagey in our pursuit of these words online. The words are out there, somewhere, defined at remarkable length.

Online Rhyming Dictionary
Any self-respecting poet will tell you that the best rhymes are always the ones that come naturally and unforced. There are plenty of songwriters, jingle-makers, and poets of all sorts however for whom a rhyming dictionary is the way out of a sticky situation. On this site you type in the dependent word and are given a selection of rhymes. Not all of them believe there are rhymes for ‘orange’.

Kitchen Dictionary
The homepage starts with the A words (abalone, absinthe, achar…) and so on to Z (…zest, zinfandel wines, zucchinis) so they are all in front of you. This is preferred to screens on some food dictionary sites that present you with a solitary Search Box, as typos are inevitable and you are denied the joy of browsing. The link to Orange Peel in Kitchen Dictionary gives me a number of tangy facts and has leads to recipes using orange peel.

Online Etymology Dictionary
“This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English,” according to the homepage. An extraordinary site that sources, amongst others, the 2nd edition OED, Weekley, Klein, Barnhart, Holthausen, and Kipfer & Chapman. Hours of endless exploring. Here for your enjoyment is its entry for Orange: “c.1300, from O.Fr. orenge (12c.), from M.L. pomum de orenge, from It. arancia, originally narancia (Venetian naranza), alteration of Arabic naranj, from Pers. narang, from Skt. naranga-s "orange tree," of uncertain origin. Loss of initial n- probably due to confusion with definite article (e.g. une narange, una narancia), but perhaps influenced by Fr. or "gold." The tree's original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Mod.Gk. still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali "Portuguese") orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792. Not used as the name of a color until 1540s.”

PHILIP HARVEY | 31 March 2012  

Oxford Dictionaries Blog
This attractive site is loaded with articles and leads about words. They can be shared on Facebook and comments twitter about. I accidentally came across a word study of ‘serendipity’, which was “invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka … [Walpole] explained … that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of ’.” More fun can be found at the new terms section of this site: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/tag/new-words/

History Today Historical Dictionary
The site “is a compendium of facts, figures, mini-biographies and definitions of historical terms. It covers people, places, key events and epochs. Each entry is concise and expertly written, and the dictionary is ideal as a study tool or to improve your knowledge of history.” The valuable links to articles in the journal itself suggest that this dictionary also acts as an index.

Postmodern Bible Dictionary
Of the making of online Bible sites there is no end and the search thereof is a weariness of the flesh. Many free online Bible dictionaries are outdated. Then we have to be extra careful about the scholarly interests, if any, of those coming from particular Christian traditions. The reputable standard texts (Anchor Bible, Interpreter’s Bible &c.) are either only available through subscription or are still only in print. Dr Tim Bulkeley of New Zealand showed what might be possible online (see link) though his hyper-text commentary on Amos.

Theological Dictionaries
Ditto theology. This page off http://www.a-z-dictionaries.com/ is typical of attempts to lasso in as much online and print information meeting the approval of the invisible editor. As with other specialist reference, online and print products vie with each other for excellence and authority. Some of the best dictionaries are still only with the presses.

Catholic Reference
John Hardon’s ‘Modern Catholic Dictionary’ (1980) online. Then take your pick from an array of homemade Catholic dictionaries, for example http://www.thesacredheart.com/dictnary.htm Various places have the pre-Vatican II Catholic Encyclopedia (1917): http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/ While some of the information here stretches credibility (e.g. Wikipedia will tell you more about Saint George than you thought possible), it presents indispensable insights into an historical worldview. It is far more thorough than Wikipedia, for example, on the outcomes of the Councils of Orange.

PHILIP HARVEY | 31 March 2012  

This was a really good article Im pretty sure I saw Eric Partridge's slang book online the other week.The Macquarie 6th is coming out next Oct 2013

Tony Kalayzich | 06 December 2012