The Paper Dictionary
This isn't so much a story about why printed dictionaries are better than electronic ones, but rather it is a story about why I have always loved dictionaries. It is a story inspired by what was lost in the translation to electronic form.
It is not a prediction or a speculation about the state of the world or the minds of the people in it. I speak from my own experience and interest. Electronic dictionaries are fine as they are, but every one I've ever seen fails to fulfill my needs as a long-time printed dictionary user, lover of all things linguistic, and a reader and a scholar. I'm pretty sure that the way that electronic dictionaries are produced now is due to the fact that their designers lack either the imagination or the skill to do a better job.
I use electronic dictionaries especially when I am sitting at my computer. In part, this is because it's quicker than getting up to find the printed dictionary. And in part it is because I've moved my residence a lot, and have gradually gotten rid of the dead weight of printed volumes. I used to keep a dictionary in every room, sometimes more than one in a room if there is more than one table or chair where I might sit. That's a luxury to be repeated at some future period.
Of course I want to understand the sentence or paragraph I'm reading or hearing, so I need to know what all the words in it mean. But I like to know what words mean, just to know what they mean. I just enjoy it. I also like to know the original language and form from which a word has descended. I like to see all the nuances of different meanings that it has in different contexts. I like to have the opposites, and the apposites, pointed out to me in case I'm interested (yes, thank you). It's interesting to look at adjacent entries to see other forms of the word, and how those are used and nuanced, and whether the next apparently-different word is actually related but not connected, by me, before. Oh, and look at that next word, I've heard that before but never remembered to look it up--it means THAT? Hunh! Interesting. And look at the next one, that's a weird one, I can't even pronounce that one...oh, I see, I've actually heard that one but never read it before, it sure isn't spelled the way it sounds, must be French or something...no, Danish! Well, then. And off I wander, "inefficiently," down this page and possibly the next, having fun and learning new things.
And everything I just said except for the first sentence, is something that is not available in electronic dictionaries. Not yet, anyway (she added hopefully).
Designers of electronic dictionaries think that all I want or need to know is the absolute most common definition of a word. I don't even need to see what else is next to that entry, and certainly not several entries down on the page or on the next page. Or, maybe they don't really think that, but instead they have their own motives: they want to show me as many ads as possible, so they show me one word on a page full of ads; they don't need me looking at a single page for an hour while I peruse all the variations that catch my eye. They want my eye caught by an ad, which they hope I am stupid enough to click on so they can get ad revenue. But I digress. The point is, when I go to the paper dictionary, my eye and my curious mind rove all over the page on which the word occurs. I learn a lot. I am stimulated. I am fascinated. I am happy.
By contrast, electronic dictionaries prevent me from learning anything but one answer to the specific question that I thought to ask. They don't stimulate me, they frustrate me. They don't fascinate me, they make me wonder why I am being thwarted. They certainly don't answer questions that I haven't thought of yet, or teach me to ask new questions or consider new avenues of exploration. It is an empty, dry, dead-end experience, and I am unhappy and dissatisfied.
There are problems with supplying more than a single word at a time, of course. For example, if you go to the Gutenberg Project and download the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, it takes a while because it is huge. It comes in a batch of files, each pertaining to words beginning with one letter. The files are big, and unless you have them all open on your computer at once, it's a little bit of chore to go and find the "H" file and open it so you can look up 'heliobacter'. So, yes, doing a *search* for a word electronically, given optimal conditions, is faster than opening to the correct page in a paper dictionary. But the process that I just described is common but not optimal, and it is slower than using a paper dictionary, and it's a lot less...um...natural than thumbing through some pages physically. That's how it feels to me, anyway. So I can see one motivation for not supplying the entire page: the files are too big and you have to find each one and open it yourself, and the dream of electronic media is to not have to ever get anything off a shelf, even an electronic shelf, so just supply that one word as fast as possible. But it's a thoughtless, uncreative motivation for a poor solution. Another solution is to have the search for 'heliobacter' actually open the entire 'H' file and spill it--the whole damned file--in front of the user, who can then spend a luxurious hour delighting in the subtleties of language if she feels like it. The user's next search for 'subterranean' can either close the 'H' file, or leave it open, just as the user pleases. But this doesn't look very fancy or sophisticated to some people, and so no one seems to want to do it that way. Which is too bad.
You're expecting me to say how stupid and illiterate this is making everyone. You know what? I don't care about that. If they don't need anything more that that out of their word lookup experience, fine, whatever. People are stupid, yet they think they know what's best for me as a user, and they think it's better that I see the one word I requested and then get the hell out of the dictionary, and there is nothing I can do about that, no point in fretting. All I care about is what I have loved, and what I have lost in this alleged advance in technology. And I care about reaching out to you, you strange person, who bothered to finish reading this piece, because I know you are out there, somewhere, holding on to your paper dictionary just like me. Hi.