The Dictionary


Growing up in Taiwan, I had my favorite dictionary on my desk and my brother also had his favorite dictionary on his desk and there are probably a few smaller more outdated dictionaries lying around the house somewhere. Some of our homework assignments were to actually go into dictionaries to find words and their usages in a sentence, or how some characters have different meanings in different contexts. My dictionary was full of highlighted words and annotations. The dictionary was often where my brother and I turn towards when we wanted to know how to write a character, what the character means, how to pronounce the character. Moreover, our elementary school had an annual competition where each student is given the same dictionary and the student who can find the given words the fastest wins a prize.

About seven years ago when I started school in the United States for the first time, I remember the one thing my parents made sure I had in my backpack was an electronic translator. I couldn’t really speak English beyond the typical pleasantries of “How are you?” “I’m fine.” “Thank you.” I was nervous, confused, and a small part of me excited about the unknown. During classes in middle school, I remember pulling out my translator and looking up unfamiliar words and writing down the Chinese translations so I can start learning them. When I was doing homework and stumbled upon new vocabulary, I would often have my electronic translator pronounce the word out loud so I can learn the correct pronunciation. My small pink electronic translator was the one device that helped me so much in learning English.

As I took French in high school, my dictionary became an app on my phone called WordReference. The process remains similar - I see an unknown French word, I tap on the WordReference icon on my phone, I enter the French word, I see the English translation.

The Evolution

Dictionaries today have more content and more information than ever before; however, the physical size of dictionaries have dramatically decreased. My Chinese dictionary in elementary school was probably 4-5 inches thick and every day I would flip through it looking for the words I didn’t know before. Then my small pink electronic dictionary that was the size of a wallet and I could carry with me to and from school. Now dictionaries are just one of the many many apps we have on our smartphones.

Flipping through a big dictionary, although accomplishing the same goal as tapping on an app on a smartphone, felt more like a scholarly action and felt like I was actually contributing and actively learning. There were short excerpts of scholarly articles or fun facts in the margins and I would read them for fun, sometimes even flipping to random pages just to discover more fun facts. But when I’m looking up a word on my phone, once I find the definition of the word I would close the app.

Dictionaries are made as a reference book. Users of the dictionary want to be able to find the answer immediately which made the physical size of dictionaries smaller and smaller and more convenient for users to carry. Some people still have coat jacket-size dictionaries and those were made because of the portability and the function of a dictionary.

Dictionaries evolve based on the need of the society. One of the most famous modern dictionaries is the Urban Dictionary which is a place where users can add definitions to words that are slangs, colloquials, or idioms. The internet is the first place most of us go to when we want to find out the meaning of a word, hence the transition from printed dictionaries to a huge database of online dictionaries. The evolution of dictionaries seem to mimic the evolution of the different editions of Morse’s Geography we inspected during lab. The majority of the contents remain the same, but some sections were added, some sections were more divided up, some formatting changes were made. We can see some dictionaries today still have pictures to aid the definition of words - as we saw maps in Morse’s Geography made an appearance in the beginning of the editions and towards the end.


Part of me miss the flipping of the pages, the satisfaction when you flip to the right page on the first try. But as technology advances to better society’s quality of life, a part of me wonders if better quality of life equates to instant gratification. It takes a few hours to make a cross-country plane trip, a few seconds to connect to a relative across the ocean through Skype. But what have we lost through this digitization? We may have lost the curiosity to browse through the dictionary on our own time in search for new knowledge because if we wanted to know something right away all we have to do is type it in Google. We may have lost the drive to research because now information is so accessible.

Another aspect that is lost is the ability to trace back through the editions and see the changes and evolutions of language. In Gleick’s The Information, he spoke about how he was able to trace the shift of a culture and language based on the words in the dictionary. The dictionaries on the internet gets updated multiple times a day with new additions and corrections, instead of a new edition that comes out every year or so. Maybe we lost a piece of history that we’ve always been able to conserved.