Digital Dictionaries


CC image by Texast

In the past, many homes would have contained a large print dictionary whose purpose was to assist with homework and settle the inevitable arguments that accompanied family games of Scrabble. Not so any longer!

Today dictionaries are ubiquitous, available to us 24/7, standard on our laptops, available when we send a text or email, embedded in our digital devices, a definition is now no more than a simple Google search away. 

Digital dictionaries are responsive, they adapt more quickly to current usage as well as to changes in technology, science and culture. With fewer space constraints, entries contain more usage guidelines and examples. Entries now include sounds as well as meanings of words.  Sites like include quizzes and language learning games. Issuing regular updates makes it easy to include new words and revisions of existing terminology.

The digital environment not only puts a wealth of information in the hands of dictionary users, it delivers information back to the dictionary makers as well – our dictionaries are reading us! In the past lexicographers would have relied on field research to collect examples of words and usages – we would now call this crowd sourcing. This practice of gathering information can be continued and expanded online. For example most online dictionaries invite readers to nominate new words. Dictionaries now respond to patterns of usage that are triggered by current events. For example in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 people looked up words associated with the nature of the event: “rubble” and “triage”. Subsequently, as people tried to make sense of what had happened more abstract terms such as “surreal” were searched. Dictionary makers also monitor unsuccessful “look-ups” to identify searches that don’t produce satisfactory results, and identify words that haven’t made it into the dictionary yet or whose definition needs to be up-dated.

From the user’s point of view differences between dictionaries are harder to see when you are searching for a definition online. The definition that is most easily found may not be the most robust or up-to-date, and it can be difficult to tell how reliable a source is. Who has developed the definition that turns up after a quick Google search, or is embedded in your digital device? As educators it is therefore vital we equip students with the skills to distinguish a reliable source from a poor one.

Do you want to promote use of digital dictionaries amongst your students? Remember that Oxford English Dictionary Online is available through EPIC . If you are thinking about the criteria that could be used to assess online dictionaries refer to the Reference resources guide.

While it's still difficult to recreate the pleasure of browsing through a print dictionary and finding something you didn’t know you were looking for, and your digital dictionary will never be able to prop open the door, this format is here to stay and we need to embrace and understand the gains that are available to all users.

By debbie

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