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  • by Michael Rickard II

Will Dictionaries Survive?

Here's another commentary I wrote for my class "Introduction to Lexicography," this time looking at the dictionary's future.

Chapter two’s history of lexicography makes me think society is waiting for the next breakthrough in lexicography. As I have discussed in earlier entries, the power of computers has opened up new opportunities to compile dictionaries, whether they be online dictionaries or print ones (although print dictionaries seem to be secondary to online ones).

When I read about Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, I think about how one remarkable man took English dictionaries and gave them the proverbial quantum leap forward, despite a lack of training as a lexicographer. As Landau details, Johnson laid out his plan about what would make a superior dictionary and went about building it. It turned into a “learn as you go” project for Johnson, with the ambitious scholar realizing language could not be static (despite his original plan stating his goal was to keep English static). Johnson’s dictionary became the gold standard until the Oxford English Dictionary, an incredible accomplishment given his health woes, lack of financial backing, and working alone (as opposed to the French Language Academy’s staff of 40).

However, this isn’t a recap of Johnson’s work, but an example of how one person can change the way things are done. Today, the technology exists to transform the way we use and look at dictionaries. As stated in earlier comments, we have computers that can analyze and compile vast corpus of words. We have voice recognition technology that should be able to incorporate regional dialects, slang, and other uses of language. What seems to be absent is a person or group of persons with the breakout idea to move things forward.

It's time to look at our current lexicons and decide what the next step in lexicography is. Just as Samuel Johnson laid out his plans for a dictionary, it is time to do so now. Society can see what has worked and what our new needs are. As Landau notes, the United Kingdom’s government funds the OED. Given the United States’ profit-driven lexicons, it seems unlikely we will have any advances barring some sudden spike in the need for dictionaries. Private funding from charitable giving and/or public-sector funding seem like the best way to achieve this. Otherwise, the United States can let the United Kingdom or someone else continue to make progress in lexicons.

Lexicons just need the right individual (or group) to find a breakthrough. The printing press revolutionized learning and the public’s ability to get information, similar to how the Information Age has changed society’s access to information. There may even be a way to make a paper dictionary that can compete with an online dictionary. R. Buckminster Fuller’s quote, “When there was not enough whale oil or coal oil, there were not enough lamps to go around. Some said that what was needed was social engineering, to move more people to the lamplight available. What was really needed was one Edison.” When I think of the dictionary and what can be done, I have to think what the world needs is a Samuel Johnson for this age.

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