Online and embedded dictionaries fail to deliver the same features as their printed predecessors. They’re brilliant at quickly providing a definition, but that’s all they do.
- Online dictionaries are those which can be found on the web, such as at www.dictionary.com and www.oxforddictionaries.com.
- Embedded dictionaries are those embedded into eBook readers such as the Kindle and Kobo.
In defining the original requirements for these dictionaries, it seems likely that only those features directly relating to the specific application were implemented (ie providing a definition for a selected word). Printed dictionaries do more than that though:
- Printed dictionaries provide definitions of alphabetically adjacent words.
- Printed dictionaries lend themselves to browsing.
- Printed dictionaries reinforce the alphabet sequence.
Where online and embedded dictionaries clearly succeed is with their near-instant response times which cannot be matched by their printed versions. Their portability cannot be ignored either. Other enhancing features such as example uses and integration with online thesauri suggest that these dictionaries are here to stay.
Alphabetically adjacent words are important. Whether they are related to the selected word, or just alphabetical “neighbours”, they are the words we stumble upon when looking for a word’s definition, and in doing so they enlarge our vocabulary without much effort. Coming across petiole and pettifog whilst looking for a definition of phaeton, we can’t help but retain some of this information for later mental retrieval. Online or embedded dictionaries don’t provide this service. They fail even moderately inquisitive readers. They only answer the specific question asked of them, without teaching anything else in the process.
Manual browsing is important. School pupils through the ages have learned new words this way. As a child learning English, French, German and Japanese languages I was encouraged to thumb through the dictionary and pick ten new words to learn every week. The result was an extended vocabulary which served me well.
Whilst providing undoubted benefit, the features delivered by new technology don’t lend themselves to learning in this way, and as a result pupils are being failed.
- The online or embedded dictionary could deliver definitions for a greater range of words – perhaps 10 or 20 neighbour words either side of the required word. This would force the reader to look for the word.
- For every definition requested, the dictionary should offer definitions of other words – in a manner similar to that in which Tip of the Day is offered for many software packages.
It might be prudent to have this extended delivery as a user-configurable option, in order to cater for all users. There remain some immediate problems with this approach, however, including:
- Some users won’t be happy. They will expect a definition of only the selected word – anything else will be regarded as superfluous information, with the potential to confuse.
- The inclusion of a messy user-option will disturb some, who will consider that it ruins the elegant “it just works” nature of the service. I’d argue that it doesn’t work – it only delivers a subset of the features I expect from a dictionary.
These are not ideal solutions, and possibly even a little contrived. Other solutions doubtless exist though but they won’t become evident until the original requirement is reframed to recognise the wider scope of learning.
This is absolutely not about technology – only a Luddite would argue that we should stick with printed dictionaries forever. With the increasing ubiquity of eBooks and the web, online and embedded dictionaries are here to stay. And the technology is clearly here already; the question is how we utilise it most effectively.
This is about requirements definition, and it’s not easy. Online and embedded dictionaries are there to answer a specific question – what does this word mean? They’re not there to educate in the broad sense. So who should be defining the wider requirements and is there any hope that this will improve? Or perhaps this is just an unintended consequence of the way in which dictionaries are implemented, and the “missing” features described above are the latest unfortunate casualty.
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You will note that the above websites relating to Dictionary Day all have one thing in common – they are about celebrating words and meanings, and about learning new words. In the light of my comments above, it’s ironic that one of the things they do least well is help with learning new words!