The Last Print Dictionary

Dennis Baron, channeling American Heritage’s marketing department, asks whether the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary will be the last print dictionary ever published.

He makes two related, but actually quite different points. The second, and more trenchant, point is that edited dictionaries, the ones we know and love that are carefully crafted by lexicographers, may not survive in an age of Wikipedia and fast, but false, facts at our fingertips. Baron points to urbandictionary.com as what must be avoided. (Urbandictionary.com is a fun site, but beyond achieving a rough level of confidence for whether or not a slang term actually exists, it is utterly useless as a tool for gaining knowledge about words.) Baron fears that sites that aggregate old dictionaries may kill the market for new ones. While crowdsourcing and other techniques made possible by digitization and the internet, if properly supervised by skilled lexicographers, may offer new methods for creating creating dictionaries, Baron has a valid point about the market. Can we afford to create new works and advance knowledge when old knowledge is free?

Baron’s first point is a nod in the direction of an elegy for print dictionaries. Baron is careful not to stray too far down this path. He readily admits that online dictionaries are better reference tools. But many others do revere the printed book over its electronic incarnation, and it is clearly this sentiment that American Heritage’s ad campaign is playing into. This reverence is really no more than a fetishization of the object. As Walter Benjamin put it, “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual” (1056–57). The celebration of the print dictionary is merely a celebration of its “aura,” not the work itself. What is important about dictionaries is not their physical form, the fact that we can touch them, their weight, their smell. What is important is the information contained within. It does not matter whether the information is presented in ink on a page or as pixels on a screen. I for one will not miss printed dictionaries. Even the smallest are heavy, bulky, and can’t be carried with you. Online dictionaries are freed from arbitrary restrictions on size and indexing. They are simply far superior as reference tools.

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Works cited:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” 1939 (1955). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Second Edition. Vincent B. Leitch, ed. W. W. Norton & Company. 2010. 1051–71. Print.

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