Monday, 2 November 2009

Cardigans versus anoraks

Me, trying to be positive for once? It couldn’t last. As I opined the other day, one of the most interesting things about dictionaries is the attitudes of the general public to them, and I can’t resist taking up some of the frankly odd ideas aired in the English broadsheets recently.

It is truly sobering to see how little clue the people that write for these newspapers have about dictionaries and where they come from, as we can see from this bizarre remark in that Times article I mentioned:
It seems curious at a time when provenance and traceability are gaining in stature, from the food we eat to the wood we build with, that language is allowed to travel in the opposite direction, with its semantic history and the defining of its meanings outsourced to anonymous, unaccountable parties in Silicon Valley or whoever else elects to throw up a dictionary site.
If writing a dictionary were no more than part of the process of “throwing up a dictionary site”, what would all the fuss be about? We could all dash one off in a weekend, whereas in reality a new dictionary often demands centuries of person labour. So where do these online dictionaries come from? Could it be that they too are the work of lexicographers, whether or not it ends up on paper between hard covers? But computers and search engines come from Silicon Valley, so that must be where online dictionaries come from too, and the Gatesian geek stereotype hardly matches up with that of those familiar old cardiganed duffers we know to be the authors of proper dictionaries, so something’s not right.

Is it important to know the names of the people who drafted the text? It’s only recently the contributors started to get a mention in the front of “their” dictionaries. Do we know these people from Adam, and how exactly are they accountable? If “provenance and traceability” are important in a reference work, perhaps what you want is actually a wiki. On the much despised Wikipedia, every fact is (supposed to be) tied down with a reference to a reliable external source, and every single change to every single one of millions of articles there and on sister sites such as Wiktionary can be viewed and traced to its author (admittedly in the form of a screen name or sometimes an IP address) by simply clicking on the “History” tab.

Most striking of all, to me, is the way this shows yet again the enduring iconic power of the book as an object. Even in this electronic era when journalists spend their whole day in front of a screen, some of them still seem to feel proper information is only found stamped on a piece of dead tree.

And more on that in a bit.

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