What the Departure of Print Dictionaries Means

MacMillan and others have stopped producing printed copies of their dictionaries, switching to online or electronic versions only. The choice was necessitated by the severe decrease in demand, as high school and college students, once their biggest market, no longer pick up these paper books. Such a rapid pace of change! Just two years ago when my son Kevin went to college, we got him the biggest baddest paper dictionary that we could find. OK, he was a bit old fashioned about that and insisted on a hard copy, but still. I'll bet the price at the dollar book store has now dropped even lower!

Instead of getting all nostalgic about print, let's think of some ways that this is actually to our advantage. Did you know that tough editorial decisions were made in the past about what words to include and what not to include?  After all, we didn't all have either the money or the ability to lug around one as big as the massive tome sitting on the podium in the library. Now, issues of space are no longer relevant for the online version.  Can you imagine the sense of using an abridged online dictionary?

Access to the dictionary has never been easier for this current digital generation.  Never far from a web browser, they can pop up a definition faster than pulling a book off a shelf. If using a Kindle, the dictionary is built right in and they only need to long press or tap on a word to pop up its definition.

Paper dictionaries needed to be kept up to date.  I had one teacher in high school insist that we always use a recent dictionary, and expected us to run out and get the latest edition every year. Well, as our instructor Michael Burdell here at Lexicom 2013 has pointed out, this can be problematic.  In his years working for MacMillan he says there is a six to nine month lead time between the writing of the articles and the released printed version.  This has led to some major gaffs in the past where trending words were added to dictionaries, only to have completely disappeared off the horizon by the time the book came out in print.  Now of course, new words can be added and corrections made at any point, there is no more print delay.

Why do I get excited about all this?  Well, dictionaries are extremely important in the languages that Wycliffe Bible Translators works in.  However, truth be told, it is much easier to scare up $20,000 to print a New Testament than it is to raise $5,000 to print a dictionary in the vernacular language.  Many dictionary printing projects have never seen the light of day because the funding wasn’t there. The move to digital is giving us the ability to leapfrog the funding issue and go straight to electronic.

There is still a gap as technology has yet to take hold in many of these areas, but not as long as you might think.  I just saw a 7 inch tablet being offered at an Asian trade show for $30.  There was also an article about the Indian government introducing a $40 tablet that they will be subsidizing for $20 and hoping that local regions will subsidize them even further.

Our hope is that the digital revolution will give many people access the richness of their language, also providing access to other languages of wider communication along the way. Oh, and of course, we wouldn’t want to forget the use of this dictionary as a tool to translate God’s Word into their language!