Death of the Dictionary
Companies use lexical data in new ways as publishing goes to the wayside.

By Monica Worsley
Think back to third grade. A troublesome term meant lugging a hefty, disproportionately-sized text off the shelf and feverishly flipping through the pages. And if you didn’t know how the word was spelled — you were screwed.

But for many, the practice of using a physical dictionary is quickly going to the wayside, and companies are finding new ways to make a profit. In the digital age, user-friendly websites, smartphone apps and built-in dictionary software on devices are replacing the behemoth books.

“Our research tells us that most people today get their reference information via their computer, tablet, or phone and the message is clear and unambiguous: The future of the dictionary is digital,” Stephen Bullon, MacMillan Education’s Publisher for Dictionaries, said in the press release “Stop the Press: Dictionary no longer a page-turner.”

The shift to new technology is accompanied by the decreased demand for print editions.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the monolingual dictionary first appeared in 1600. It started to take its modern form with meanings of common, everyday words, pronunciation, etymologies and parts of speech in the 18th century. And over the past two centuries, dictionaries have grown to include a diversified vocabulary now accessible with a few clicks on a digital device.

Dictionary publishers Oxford University Press and MacMillan Dictionary would not release specific sales data. However, MacMillan said print dictionary sales have declined over the years, a trend contributing to the decision to go solely online, which the company announced in 2012. But that doesn’t mean the industry is taking the change lying down.

“Basically, we see it as a very positive thing in terms of moving from paper to online,” said Michael Rundell, editor-in-chief of MacMillan Dictionary. “It provides us with a number of opportunities. Not to mention, it’s kind of an unstoppable thing. We can do much more in the medium.”

And the powers of digital advertising make it a possibility. Rather than banking on individual book sales, online dictionaries depend on income generated by ad banners and click-through rates. The reference material becomes a fully functional website.

Rundell said publishers do see the move away from the old business model in which “you sold a book” to the new approach, with less straightforward means of making money, as a downside. Even so, dictionary publishers are finding a number of ways to repurpose the wealth of information they have available.

Oxford has begun leasing information from its lexical database to others for use in their software. Other companies require a monthly fee for unlimited access to the online references.

“The New Oxford American Dictionary is featured in the Kindles sold in the U.S., and I believe it’s the same in the U.K. with the Oxford Dictionary of English,” said Allison Wright, Oxford University Press editor for U.S. dictionaries. “Also, we have deals with Apple so that if you have a Mac and you have that dictionary up, it’s our dictionary and thesaurus.”

MacMillan Dictionaries reports that millions of people use their online version every month. And it’s not solely MacMillan Dictionary that has seen non-print dictionaries grow in popularity. Oxford Dictionaries have websites and a number of versions of dictionaries available in iOS and Android app forms too.

“I think that the trend in the dictionary industry is to have it be more seamlessly integrated into your daily life,” said Jane Solomon, senior content editor and lexicographer for Dictionary.com. “Dictionary.com has a really popular iPhone app … and the mobile website gets 15 million monthly visitors.”

The verdict: The dictionary isn’t dead. It’s a revamped resource, one that editors in the industry feel has the potential to become even better that it has ever been.

“I think we’d say dictionaries haven’t died,” Rundell said, “but morphed into something broader — a general reference resource for anything language-related.”

Photo courtesy of Trevor



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