Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Online Dictionaries: 1 Essay

This essay by Philip Harvey first appeared in Eureka Street in March this year. A critical webography of online dictionaries follows this blog.

'Words, words between the lines of age,' sings Neil Young. His bittersweet song about relationships makes us dwell on how words that are meant to say everything are still just words. Sometimes they are all we have, and we try to say it the best way we can. We do not always succeed, and that is not just because of the words. But we will go on trying, we are all caught up in the daily traffic of words.

The lyric also reminds us that words themselves are born, alter, age, transmute, and even die. Their meaning shifts through time and may have a completely different — need I say awesomely different — meaning between age groups, regions, times and educations.

This has never been truer than in the case of 21st century English, the lingua franca of the planet. The sheer variety and vitality of usage across every continent by those for whom English is first, second, third, even 23rd language brings us rather too quickly to the whole matter of meaning. Meaning is a service of online dictionaries, but not always their forte. Meaning is what online dictionaries purport to supply, but how thoroughly and deeply depends on the purposes of their makers. Meaning is the aim of dictionaries, but whose meaning? And when were the definitions created?

Thoughts like this fizzed in my mind each time I visited Merriam-Webster, which was for a time the main internet dictionary through a process of availability, popularity, and algorithms. Samuel Johnson famously defined oats as 'a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people'. Merriam-Webster was not so susceptible to prejudice and gave short, straightforward definitions that were simple fare indeed. Merriam-Webster now seems to have gone the way of all business, so we turn to The Free Dictionary (American Heritage and Collins) which gives four definitions for oats, no history, and unhelpful links to muesli websites.


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Better in this regard is dictionary.com (Random House) with six definitions and history of origins, including 'sowing of wild oats', the kind reported frequently in James Boswell's journals and studiously overlooked by his friend Johnson. But in none of these are we given an idea of which usages are the most common, nor is a date placed on archaic uses of 'oats'. This site has a voice box to click for pronunciation, which is good if you wish to say 'oats' like someone from Massachusetts.

The poet W.H. Auden kept the 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary in his writing room: he once called the room 'the cave of making'. At an older age his set had become so over-used it was falling apart and he considered purchasing a new one. Today the OED is online, so Auden would have had to subscribe, then renew that subscription each year. He would have foregone the pleasure of paging through entries at leisure for the rigour of pointing at entries with a cursor.

This might be okay if he wanted both the latest and the least meanings of a word, or wished to identify earliest uses of that word in any of its usages, but it would have cramped a serendipitous reading style that presented Auden with variations of a word, and have prohibited him from mining the forgotten words he set into his lapidary late poems.

In many ways this has always been the choice, between the concision of the popular prescriptive dictionary and the expansiveness of the great descriptive dictionaries like the OED. When we want a quick definition, we want a dictionary that matches our word in short order. This can be a problem when assessing new words. When we are translating, we want all uses of the word, proceeding by common usage.

The quality of internet definitions can be woeful, or wonderful, which is due in part to its democratic range of choice. The free online internet still needs to be treated with caution as a final reference authority and it is sometimes a worry to know that globally people turn to this source for definitive meanings every day.

Despite appearances, the forgoing grump is not aimed at the internet, but at the lack of thoroughness in free online dictionaries. You say tomarto and I say tomayto. The free ones are too often bland and incomplete in their definitions, while those that are complex and exhaustive require a credit card. Quality, it seems, comes at a price. This divide between what is free and what has a price tag on the internet is an increasing educational issue. Rich institutions and individuals can pay for the words we all use, while others cannot, or just do not.

But then maybe it's the internet itself that has become one big dictionary and our task is learning how to read it as we would any other new reference work at home or in our libraries and offices. I first heard the word 'bogan' over 20 years ago. It seemed to describe very imprecisely certain kinds of young men who loitered on railway stations and plazas. They wore running shoes, black clothes, loose cardigans and never combed their hair. In my mind's eye they resembled Kurt Cobain, but Cobain probably wasn't a bogan. The free online dictionaries today maintain that a bogan is simply a tranquil stretch of water found in Canada.

But interestingly, Wikipedia itself has the best overall perspective on this term. Its entry includes links to dedicated bogan websites, leaving one to understand that while 'bogan' is a term of derision for some, for others it is a badge of honour.

The OED does not provide this kind of sweep, and if you can pay for the inestimably worthy Macquarie, one of our seriously undervalued literary creations, you will be told that bogan is a colloquial noun (mildly derogatory) for 'a person, generally from an outer suburb of a city or town and from a lower socio-economic background, viewed as uncultured. Compare barry, bennie, boonie, Charlene, Charmaine, cogger, feral; especially Qld bevan; Chiefly Qld bev-chick; WA bog; ACT booner; ACT charnie bum; Tasmania chigger; Riverina gullie; Melbourne Region mocca; Victoria scozzer; Chiefly NSW westie.' These last are baffling even to many of the locals, let alone the global villagers who read this terminology beyond the land girt by sea.

Neil Young's lyric plays with the expression 'reading between the lines', that process not just reserved for poetry and government documents where the actual meaning of the words is less important than the implied meaning.

Another positive of treating the internet as a dictionary is the stupendous number of uses we can find for any one word. Those with the time can be extracting examples of the word in every setting, whether in its plain use, its minor uses, or its subtle 'between the lines' uses. By comparison, Samuel Johnson only had his memory to draw on, a circle of friends, and a substantial library. Prizes go to the best Johnsonian pronouncement upon being shown the internet.

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