Thank you very much for all your comments this week ? I have really enjoyed bloviating and pontificating (I mean blogging) here!
I was thinking about making this last post something REALLY light and fluffy, like my favorite dictionary-related songs ("Dictionary" by Muckafurgason is probably pretty high on that list) or some words from my Weird and Wonderful Words books, but instead I'm going to talk about something else.
The death of the dictionary.
Whoa. I know, right? All week I've been cheery and bubbly and rah-rah-rah dictionaries YAY! and now (on Good Friday, of all days) I'm going to step right up and give some kind of eulogy for the very book I've been championing?
Well, I don't really think the dictionary is going to die. I think it's going to mutate. I think it's going to change. I've been working on dictionaries for a long time now (going on fourteen years) and sometimes I feel as if I have been feeding a caterpillar and watching it build a chrysalis.
Here's the thing: the dictionary is outgrowing its physical body, the book. There is so much information packed into a printed dictionary now that its density is approaching the point where it will become a black hole. Nothing more can go in and nothing will be able to come out. The density of some dictionaries is already approaching the point past which the information is actually usable or comprehensible.
So the idea is ? when the form impedes the function, change the form. We've already started this, in a small way. Our flagship dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, is available many ways: as a large and lovingly crafted print book; as part of our OxfordReference.com subscription reference service, as the Dictionary Widget in Apple's OS X (Tiger) operating system, and as a program you can download into your Treo, Blackberry, or other smartphone. That download is included with the print version as a CD, and soon the print version will include a free year's subscription to the web version of the dictionary, as well.
Why all these different forms for the same content? Because users consult the dictionary in different places, in different ways. Sitting in an easy chair, reading a novel ? the print dictionary can live very happily on a table next to you. It can also sit next to your desk, but many people prefer a website or a hard-drive version for speed and cut-and-pasteability. But the heavy, 2,000+ page print dictionary is not a good companion on your commute, or in a meeting, or at a party when someone asks you the etymology of "island" (okay, that last probably only happens to me!) but those are all places where you have your cell phone!
It's not the form of the dictionary that's important, it's the content. It's like laundry detergent. Your clothes get just as clean with powder, or packets, or gel or liquid ? it's what you prefer, what's easiest for you to handle. Unlike other books, dictionaries are atomic. A quick blip on a screen is good enough. It doesn't ruin the narrative flow, it doesn't intrude on the experience. It is the experience.
So I see these alternate forms growing, because their possibilities are greater than those of the book. What if you said a word into your cell phone and the definition (or, more usefully, the spelling) popped up on the screen? What if you used your phone like a scanner to check the ingredients list on a product to see if something containing "cochineal" was safe for your vegan friend? (It's not.) What if you could text-message a word in something you were reading to us for a definition, and if it wasn't in the dictionary we'd include its definition in the next NIGHTLY update?
Soon dictionary content can be ubiquitous. Everywhere. Always. (No delusions of grandeur here, right?) But really, if you think of the dictionary as a tool, one that is more and more essential as we begin to live deeper and deeper in a sphere that consists more of information than of physical objects, then making that tool omnipresent can only be a good thing.
So perhaps I'm not talking so much of the death of the print book (they will always be around, of course ? the power does go out every once in a while, after all) and there's nothing better than print for serendipitous browsing. (In fact, I'd like to build a print dictionary designed just to make serendipitous discoveries more frequent.) But I'm saying that we may have finally exceeded the tolerances of the printed book. We might have gotten it going as fast as it can go; it may be shuddering and shaking under the strain we've put on it. Time to figure out the next thing; not death so much as transformation.
If you have suggestions, comments, rants, blue-sky dictionary ideas, etc., I can always be reached at email@example.com.