Are physical dictionaries becoming obsolete?

I love dictionaries.  I like the fact that they contain a world of information between their covers.  They are indispensable when it comes to answering quick questions when learning a new language, and even come in very handy when you’re unsure about your native language. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can give you basic information, or more than you’d need in a lifetime.

I have an English dictionary that sits within easy reach on my desk, in case I have any words that stump me at work.  It tells me parts of speech, gives me usage examples, tells me about any UK/US  differences, and gives me frequency scores (indications of how common the word is in everyday writing and speech).  The corpus used to compile the information has over 250 million words from text and transcribed speech.  So why do I increasingly find myself using online dictionaries, and user-modified sources (wikis and user-rated references)?

With long-established words, I am quite confident that my dictionary will give me an accurate reflection.  When it comes to modern terms, however, I would not trust the frequency scores, or most-common definition.  In fact, with flash-in-the-pan or fleeting sort of terms, I don’t expect the dictionary to contain them at all.  This is where online resources come in very handy, not to mention that a good search will uncover what users of terms think of the current definitions.

So what are the big dictionary companies doing about it?  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) makes revisions every 3 months.  I’m glad to see that in June, they added turducken. As The Global Language Monitor points out, newly-released Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary includes ‘new words’ such as sock puppet, which, at 50 years old, is at least twice as old as this dictionary’s target audience.  Then again, they have 2005’s staycation, which refers to a vacation spent at home or nearby.  Is their update of nearly 100 new and not-so-new words enough to keep up with the language?  It’s unlikely.

With internet-fueled globalisation of popular new terms, will traditional dictionaries survive?  Or will they remain a reminder of the more stable parts of language when terms like pwnd (that’s right, it has no vowels) have gone the way of cowabunga?

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