An interesting piece by Jennifer Howard from the Chronicle of Higher Education: “In the Digital Era, Our Dictionaries Read Us.” It deals with dictionaries tracking what words readers search for, the third edition of the OED (“it’s far too early to say whether there will or won’t be a print incarnation”—Howard points out that Macmillan Education “announced in November that it would no longer make print dictionaries at all”) and the OED’s integrating its historical thesaurus (“That ‘puts all of the enormous content of the OED into a taxonomic structure… So if you wanted to see all the terms for, say, a loose woman that were used in the 19th century, with a couple of clicks you could get all that information’”—I wrote about it here), crowdsourcing, and other topics; towards the end, it includes this important admonition:
Dictionaries are not created equal, though, and the most readily found definition will not always be the most robust or up-to-date. Who’s behind the definition that turns up on a quick Google search or embedded in your digital device? Online it can be very hard to tell how reliable a source is. Berglund serves as the executive secretary of the Dictionary Society of North America, and she thinks it’s more vital than ever to equip students with the literacy skills to be able to distinguish a good source from a mediocre one. Whatever form future dictionaries take, she wants professors as well as their students to take them seriously. “We tend to forget that the dictionary is one of the most valuable tools for humanistic study,” she says.
I hope I don’t sound too much like a fuddy-duddy when I say that it bothers me to think of students treating, say, Urban Dictionary as equivalent to Merriam-Webster or the OED. (Thanks, Paul!)