In Praise of Dictionaries Past, Present and Future - Translation Skills Training

In Praise of Dictionaries Past, Present and Future

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This week’s Blog is dedicated to dictionary junkies everywhere.  You know you are a dictionary junkie if, when you go to used bookstores, you find the temptation to buy irresistible when you come across old, hardbound dictionaries or sets of dictionaries.  You know you are a dictionary junkie if, when the subject of dictionaries comes up, you can name two or three publishers and even specific editions that you can recommend – and for concrete reasons.  If you recognize yourself as a dictionary junkie, many of the observations about general dictionaries you’re about to read will resonate with you; specialized dictionaries merit separate attention.  Even if you are not a dictionary junkie, it is hoped that they will be novel enough and stimulating enough to make you a bit more inquisitive about the relationships between language society and history.  Analytic Linguists should be dictionary junkies in a class all their own – by compiling and maintaining personal dictionaries as they encounter lexical data from their daily exposure to the language of the streets.  Let’s see what can we observe about the various kinds of dictionaries for general use that you can find in the public domain.

In one sense, dictionaries are lexical graveyards.   Depending on the editorial philosophies and policies by which words are included and excluded, many words in some dictionaries are labeled “archaic,” “rare,” “seldom used,” “obsolete,” “vulgar,” among other classifications.  Some dictionaries go to great lengths to label words in such ways, most notably those that ply their wares on the seas of their respective languages under the ambitious flag of “unabridged.”  Prior to the digital age, dictionaries took years to compile, edit and finally print, which meant that by the time a dictionary was printed, it was already beginning to be out of date.   The painstaking research and tedious composition of dictionaries produced many dictionaries whose historical entries perpetually offer troves of lexical gems, at least as long as their bindings last and those who are lexically inquisitive will continue to dig through them.

The methods of publishing prior to the digital age gives rise to another reality: words are brought back to life from these lexical graveyards, slowly but surely.  Just as you may suddenly recall an old joke and tell it to your friends, who then re-tell it, perhaps embellishing it their own way, words, turns of phrase and all sorts of linguistic debris – disused items – bubble up from the deep cauldron of languages, rise to the surface, boil off and swirl through societies with renewed life on the lips, from the pens and through the keyboards of new generations.  There is even a dictionary seemingly dedicated to encouraging this phenomenon, at least in Spanish.  Written by Elvira Muñoz, the Diccionario de palabras olvidadas y de uso poco frecuente (Madrid: Editorial Paraninfo, S.A., 1993) this 409-page tome is a dictionary junkie’s dream.  It presents items in three columns: to the left, the entry, in the middle, a definition and to the right, synonyms in more modern Spanish.

Dictionaries embody the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.  Contemplating this can lead you to have serious concerns about the future regarding the teaching, retention and transmission of knowledge and skills.  Go to any shopping mall during this holiday season and you might perceive a deceptive patina of an eternal, yet evolving present imposed on daily life by the digital age in which the need to do constant upgrades is the new normal.  You’ll see people sitting next to each other sending each other text messages and not talking.  You might bristle at the constant hype of novelty and remember that no one ever upgraded their rotary phone every few days.  Unless one is careful, this focus on the here and now and a future that is nanoseconds away can blot out our memories of the world that was before.  Living in an eternal present is more descriptive of animals; humans create, develop and transmit civilization through language, the thing that gives societies their collective memory and a collective identity.  Considering how much of all that has happened in the past 30 years is stored digitally, what would be remembered of them if the lights went out?  Without wishing to sound apocalyptic, what skills would be (a) necessary and (b) capable of surviving so as to be transmitted to future generations?  More importantly, who would ensure this transmission and how would it occur?  Who could continue to do their current jobs and what skills from those jobs could they take into a post-technical world?  Whatever your own answers to these questions are, the transmission of knowledge and the understanding of that knowledge would necessarily occur through the medium of human language.

In Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Cien años de soledad, the plague of insomnia can be seen as an allegory of collective forgetfulness that threatens to devour Macondo like a vortex of mental oblivion.  The novel of course is an enormous cultural-mythical encyclopedia or dictionary in the form of prose and this particular part of the novel is a semiotician’s garden of delights.   At first, the inhabitants of Macondo have what at first appears to be a collective, but otherwise normal, bout of insomnia.  In fact, the inhabitants of Macondo are glad, because now they have more time to do the things they love or need to do.  As time passes, however, they notice that they are beginning to forget the names of things.  In an attempt to remedy that, they begin putting signs on things, such as a cow, with the name of the animal and instructions to remind people that the cow must be milked twice a day in order to obtain milk.  Eventually, the fear grew into almost a panic as they worried that they would forget even what the letters on the signs were.  There are various ways to apply this allegory to the real world, but one way to interpret it is as a representation of the very real danger to civilization when people no longer cultivate and care for language – which is the medium in which their histories reside – and in living people, not in digital databases incapable of understanding the data.  One lesson from this allegory for Analytic Linguists is that they can only be said to truly know what they can recall – they do not truly know what they must look up.

Technology is a double-edged sword.  Indeed, convinced that humans and not “computers” will, for a long time into the future, use language and understand language, the abiding question for Translation Skills Training™ (TST) has been and continues to be how to impart and/or improve skills that are intrinsically and quintessentially human while using the relatively new medium of the internet.  Another challenge TST encountered and solved is how to keep students engaged with the objects of their study and prevent technology from taking center stage.  In essence, TST worked to minimize the depth of “click-throughs” to navigate to the subject at hand and to provide a sensory rich environment without it becoming a distraction.

Dictionaries produced for scholastic purposes or as office reference works typically contain a large number of words that are of recent coinage due to the information age and technology, which is pragmatic, economical and necessary.  However, given their need to be updated and frequently reprinted or reissued (in the case of online ones), they often sacrifice the breadth and depth of dictionaries once produced for high school classrooms – when literature and conversation formed the mental habits of young people more than electronic gadgets and visual entertainment.  Over perhaps even less time than for dictionaries in the pre-digital age, these dictionaries will become lexical graveyards as well as treasures for those seeking to understand the evolution of technology.

Words as individual entities can be likened unto atoms whose nucleus is often their primary dictionary meanings, or denotation.  In addition, like the electrons around an atom’s nucleus, they have swarms of connotations swirling about them.  Just as the exact position of electrons is variable, the connotative meanings that any particular word can take on depends on many contextualizing factors, such as time, place and position relative to other meanings and intentions of a writer or speaker.  It is essential for Analytic Linguists to become sensitive to this feature of human language because they work with language “on the fly,” when a miniscule change in intonation or a particular context can make a seemingly innocent word bristle with meaning in the context of a criminal investigation.

My personal anecdote about being a dictionary junkie is that I once happened to be in a used bookstore when a fellow came in and tried to get the bookseller to buy a two-volume set of a US English dictionary from the 1940s.  I noticed that the set was The New Century Dictionary published by Appleton Century (1946 reprint of the first edition, 1927) and the set was in excellent condition (not to be confused with the more coveted set The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, first published in 1889).  The bookseller would not buy them because he said that publication was “out of date.”  I asked the owner of the books what he would accept as a fair price and bought them directly from the owner for less than the cost of a modest lunch (a baseball, if signed by the “right” players, will fetch a lot more).  If you are familiar with quality dictionaries, this set is my go-to for resolving any question about English words this side of the O.E.D.  Just as my other dictionaries (including one Spanish to English gem from London, 1807), it never “times out,” has no pop-up ads and I can leave it open to any page as long as I want.

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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