Dictionaries Are Hot Again.

Katherine Rosman has a piece for the New York Times on the current popularity of dictionaries:

At a time when many are questioning the definition of common words they thought they understood, after years of the English language being degraded by text messages and hashtags, dictionaries have made a surprising comeback in the United States.

On dictionary apps and websites, “lookups” (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is one word) of words or phrases related to news events have precipitously increased. Bibliophiles are becoming social media stars. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit center for some publishers.

“Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society. “Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.”

The most commonly used dictionaries, whether in print or digital, reflect what is known as “descriptive lexicography,” meaning that editors study the way people use words and determine their meaning based on that evidence.

Social media has been revolutionary in changing the access lexicographers have to the evolution of how words are used. Yet the process of evaluating evidence and writing definitions in a clear and unbiased manner remains the objective, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press.

And there’s a great quote from Sheidlower at the end: “In times of stress, people will go to things that will provide answers. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol.”


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol.”

    (d) All of the above.

  2. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol
    No guns?

    There are much more lexicographic tools now and the questions asked have to be more penetrating. More precise space-time distributions (what word “fronth” meant in 1960 American Southwest), frequency in different registers, more precise discrimination of synonims, etc.

    And “English language degraded by text messages”. Really (we need a new typografic sign, opposite of the exclamation point, showing exhaustion and quiet resignation). How about “English language exploring and expanding into the new forms of speech”?

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    “No guns?”

    No point. Couldn’t get hold of the germs and steel.

  4. Why is she surprised lookup is one word? Burnout, breakdown, cookout, bakeoff, handoff, handout…

  5. All I get for “fronth” is a couple of Norwegian artists.

  6. Why is she surprised lookup is one word?

    She was on her way to a markup mashup club meetup at the lockup but the lookout had a throwdown in a hangout with a grownup and it ended in a coup.

  7. David Marjanović says

    and it ended in a

    showdown, obviously.

  8. showdown, obviously.

    (The joke, such as it is, is to get people to garden-path read coup as co-up.)

  9. David Marjanović says

    Ah. Didn’t occur to me.

  10. Didn’t occur to me either!

  11. Oh well. Next time I’ll rhyme it with blowup or something.

  12. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit center for some publishers.

    Really? Which dictionaries? Which publishers? I heard that in late 2015, Merriam Webster laid off half their staff. Also, Jesse Sheidlower, who was mentioned in the article, used to be the editor-at-large for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, but his position was cut. He also used to write a fine blog for the Random House Dictionary, but that dictionary too was axed by the publishing company around 1999. The American Heritage Dictionary staff was reduced to a skeleton crew in 2011. Wiley sold Webster’s New World to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012, too. Perhaps there were some layoffs there as well. O brisk new world of management innovation where businesses are profitable without employees!

    At least the Wiktionary is developing into a solid resource and is supported by very competent contributors. I wonder if the curtailment of internet freedom in our dimming age (which already has archive.org building a mirror site in Canada) will hinder the development of the Wiktionary in the future.

  13. O brisk new world of management innovation where businesses are profitable without employees!

    That’s been understood since about 1980. Each employee is a liability that reduces the bottom line, so the cheapest way to run a business by getting rid of them all. Similarly, each copy of a newspaper printed increases costs that cannot be offset by the retail price, so the cheapest thing to do is to print no copies. Circulation wars are no mere metaphor: just as in modern wars each side hopes that the other side will be ruined first by the cost of making things only to blow them up, so each newspaper hopes that its opponent will print itself out of business.

  14. A message arrived in my email box today from Michael Quinion, announcing that he will stop writing his regular mailing World Wide Words about English etymology and usage:

    About a year ago, closure of the freelance reading programme of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I had contributed since 1992, meant that I had lost a key stimulus for investigating and writing about new words and – more recently – access to the online OED.

    I assume it is part of this long-standing program:


    How sad… Just the other day I was admiring the appositeness of a citation in the OED article for the adverb quite while trying to explain to the difference between quite and very to a non-native speaker of English:

    1980 J. McClure Blood of Englishman xvi. 144, I only said a ‘quite’ brilliant idea, sir—not a ‘very’.

  15. Damn, I’m very sorry to hear that.

  16. Most BrE speakers I know insist that AmE quite is as different from BrE quite as AmE rubber is from its BrE homonym, but I don’t see it, and neither do the dictionaries. Americans may not say Quite as a sentence very often (one of the citations says “my work lies among Americans, and they expect Englishmen to say it”), but Quite so, which the OED calls “chiefly Brit.” has about the same frequency in Google Ngrams whether you look at the AmE corpus or the BrE one, peaking in 1920 or a bit later and then declining steadily since then. Certainly there is an ambiguity between the older ‘completely’ sense and the newer ‘somewhat’ sense (except under negation where it is always ‘completely’), but all we anglophones suffer from and with that.

  17. There may be overlap in the shared older senses, but I’ve definitely seen confusion caused by Americans misinterpreting the newer British sense. I remember people being baffled by a British-made map on Wikipedia that gave “quite common” as a level of frequency less than “common”. (As far as I know, no one’s really arguing that the difference lies in uses like “quite so”.)


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