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Are Dictionaries Dead?

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egid...

“Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.”

That was one of the standard punch lines on the Rowan & Martin show. I was just a kid back then, so I didn’t get half the jokes.

But while most of the naughty one-liners on the show flew right over my head, I knew what a Funk & Wagnalls was.

If you’re under a certain age, however, you may not have heard of it. That’s because Funk & Wagnalls, a respected dictionary publisher, published its last dictionary in the ’70s.

When’s the last time you used a dictionary?

I don’t mean the pathetic “dictionary” built into your Word software. I don’t even mean the darn good dictionary/thesaurus app included with your Mac. (Mac users: If you didn’t know you had this cool app, let me know, and I’ll show you how to find it.) And I certainly don’t mean Googling the word to check the spelling, or even worse, relying on spell-check.

No, no, no. Here’s what I’m asking: When was the last time you pondered over a word’s spelling, and got off your duff, and shuffled over to the bookcase, and pulled the big fat ol’ Webster’s off the shelf, and slipped on your reading glasses (if you’re my age), and flipped through the pages, and found the word you were seeking?

I confess: It’s been quite a while since I’ve done that.  And that makes me a little sad. Or maybe the feeling is nostalgic.

I used to love dictionaries. As a child, I used to literally read them, page by page, trying to memorize the words I didn’t know. When I earned my Master’s in English Literature, I received the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a graduation gift. I didn’t get the $1,000, 20-volume version — no, my OED was called “compact” —  but with more than 2,400 pages, it’s still a pretty hefty tome. It came with its own magnifying glass; that’s how small the typeface was. Just looking at the big book on the shelf made me feel a little smarter, a little more literary.

I haven’t opened that sucker in more than a decade. It takes up space, collecting dust. The magnifying glass? It’s here somewhere.

I fear that dictionaries have become relics of another era, going the way of buggy whips, rabbit ears, and floppy disks, and correcting Selectric typewriters. (Raise your hand. Who remembers those?) In fact, in this article, author Dan Eldridge asks if we still need the dictionary at all.

But Eldridge also points out that dictionaries haven’t actually died. They are evolving. Take a look at the Merriam-Webster website, for example. It’s fun, interactive, engaging. From the home page, you can learn the meaning of trending words like “meme” and “malarkey.” You can watch a “Top 10” slideshow — today, it’s a Halloween-inspired roundup of words representing fearful phobias. You can take quizzes. You can buy a mug, T-shirt, or tote, even a pet bowl. You can get free apps for your mobile.

Do you know what “immure” means? If not, you might want to have a “Word of the Day” emailed to you.

And of course — since this is a dictionary, after all — you can look up the spelling and meaning of words, and hear the pronunciation, in Spanish and English.

You can even see what words other people are searching for, looking up, or saying. For example, “Jackanapes.” As in: “You, sir, are a terpsichorean jackanapes.”

Want to know if that’s a compliment or insult?

Well, you’ll just have to look that up. But not in your Funk & Wagnalls.

And if you need help finding the right word, I can help.

Write Spell on!

by Maryann Hammers — your solution for all writing and editing needs

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One comment on “Are Dictionaries Dead?

  1. wlouison
    October 27, 2012

    I wish I just needed reading glasses…I’m as blind as a bat haha I generally have really good spelling, so I’ve no need for a dictionary. In terms of Thesaurus, however, I use http://www.thesaurus.com and the last time I cracked open my Webster Thesaurus was probably five or six years ago (which is like 1/4-1/3 of my life). I guess there’s just quicker ways to doing things nowadays. Most people, myself included, are all about saving time. Yet, it amazes me that there are people out there who don’t know how to use a dictionary…now that’s when I start getting a little concerned.

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This entry was posted on October 26, 2012 by in dictionary, language usage, words and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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