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!)


  1. Equivalent, no. But if you want to know what donkey punch means, UD is your only hope among the dictionaries. It must be read critically, but so must the OED; it was only recently that the latter began telling you when an entry was last updated.

  2. Sure, as long as you know what’s good for what, they’re both extremely valuable. So is the Onion, as long as you don’t mistake it for a “real” newspaper.

  3. Marc Leavitt says

    My shelves are filled with dictionaries in nearly a dozen languages, and I admit freely, that over the past few years, I have hardly looked at them.
    Lest this sound like an advertisement for web-only dictionaries, I offer trhis caveat: books have a lot in common with favorite nursey blankets; anyone who hugs a computer, while sucking on a pacifier, is very strange indeed.

  4. Any idea why the Feedly version of this post is illustrated with a pic of a bunch of neatly naked women?

  5. Is Feedly a little touchy just now?
    Urban Dictionary is becoming a stock joke, so that’s good. People are catching on.
    Unfortunately, as John points out, it is often the only source for recent coinages. Bullshit rushes in where real dictionaries fear to tread.

  6. Forget Urban Dictionary, it’s a last resort. Wikipedia has a much better entry for ‘donkey punch’ (a nasty little phrase that I wouldn’t have minded living without).

  7. I have a copy of the dead-tree New Edition Urban Dictionary (Andrews McMeel, 2012), compiled by Aaron Peckham, and it’s worth a look. The made-up obscene redefinitions by adolescents seem to have been mostly cleaned up. Even as edited, it does look like one of the least trustworthy lexicons around; I plan to Google a sampling of the entries and see what proportion of them exist outside of UD. Since the contributors are lexicographic ignorami, the book is full of snigletosis (to define a term without regard to its part of speech) and useless usage examples (‘Check out my rockstar parking!’) And a number of entries that could be found in any nonurban dictionary; I was most surprised by ‘eat humble pie’.
    A few other notes: There is no entry for ‘donkey punch’. The cover shows a man saying ‘Get down with your bad self!’, which the book will not help you with. ‘Head splinter’ means ‘earworm’. (‘Earworm’ gets ‘In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 787 already displayed.’ ‘Head splinter’ gets to 808, but most of those are about splintering heads and people heading splinter groups; I count 15 real ‘head splinter’ citations of the 50 in the first five pages, five of which are from the UD site, whereas it’s 45 for ‘earworm’ if you count a lot for DJ Earworm.)

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