or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

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Tell the truth: how often do you use a printed dictionary. and how often do you use one online?

Since most of us write nowadays sitting at our computers, I am willing to bet that print dictionaries aren't seeing a lot of action these days; it's so much easier to type "allegory definition" into the Google search bar (or whatever you happen to use) and have the answer a couple of seconds later.

Mind you, I use the Oxford English Dictionary all the time, because it is without question the preeminent sourcebook for the language, and I use the printed version, because it's the version I happen to have. I'm glad to have it, and I'm glad it exists, but if I had the CD-ROM or online versions, I think I would never open the covers of my paper edition again. No more flipping through pages, no more squinting at tiny print (it's the compact version, with six miniaturized pages jammed onto every page), no more memorizing dates and exact wordings until I can trot back to my computer to type it in (the book is big and heavy, and I just don't have room for it on my computer desk, so it sits on a low bookcase in my living room).

I don't own either electronic version because they're kind of expensive. The CD-ROM edition is $295, which is not a horrific amount of money in the long run, but I haven't bought it because the online edition exists, and it seems likely that that would be superior to the disc. Think about it: the second a change is made, a new definition added, a new word deemed eligible, it would instantly be available to its users. And more, of course. Compared to that, the CD seems fusty, static, stuck in a rut. But online is even more expensive, because it's an ongoing charge: $295 U.S. a year.

So I am caught in this waffle. Either electronic version would be better than the cellulose edition I have, but they're both expensive, and the presumably better one is even more expensive--an expense that continues year after year. And I suppose I can't justify spending money for an electronic version of a book I already have, even though it would make my life easier.

But at least I have one. Future generations might not have even that, because sales of printed dictionaries are tumbling so fast that the third edition of the OED is probably never going to make it onto the page, but will instead be available exclusively online.

I don't know how to feel about that. My inner Luddite thinks that the complete reliance on electrons is a mistake in the long run: you're always one power outage or natural disaster away from being cut off from all sources of information. Then again, in a natural disaster or a blackout, you're probably not thinking of using the dictionary. And we can't very well compel book, newspaper, and magazine publishers to keep using paper in perpetuity just in case our computers happen to fail.

So maybe wave goodbye to the OED as it's existed for eighty-plus years. And maybe think of getting a used hardcover edition, just in case.


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