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Online Dictionaries

I have an idea clattering around in the back of my head to write a series of reviews of online dictionaries. I think the time has come for this because the number of online dictionary sites has mushroomed since I mounted my first one back in 1996, when it was one of three (the others were Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster). I don’t have the time for this undertaking just yet, so I thought I would do a short forewarning here (of the dictionaries and my planned series).

Other than the Oxford English Dictionary (paid-subscription) site, the Merriam-Webster site and alphaDictionary, none of the new dictionary websites are run by lexicographers or linguists. The near sale of Dictionary.com for $10 million shows how lucrative these sites can be. (alphaDictionary’s finances are quite misleading.) As more and more businesses invade this territory, the quality of the dictionaries placed on line become more and more a secondary concern. The term “dictionary” is one of the most searched words at the search engines, a marketing bonanza for anyone with a list of words and synonyms.

When Dictonary.com first went on line, it offered access only to professionally compiled dictionaries: the American Heritage and the M-W medical dictionaries. However, it received a lot of competition from the One-Look Dictionary (a clever invention of Bob Ware, who sold it a few years back to a Colorado businessman). One-Look indexes almost a thousand online dictionaries so that a visitor may search them all at once. It includes M-W, American Heritage, and more than 900 others.

Perhaps for this reason Dictionary.com began adding public domain dictionaries to its index. Today you can search Princeton University’s WordNet dictionary and the 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary there. The problem with WordNet is its lack any capitalization, so someone has to edit it to make it serviceable. The problem with the 1913 Webster’s is that the majority of its definitions and much of the spelling are outdated, also requiring heavy editing.

Even though Dictionary.com makes millions, it undertook neither of those tasks or, if it did, the results have not been published. The results are rampant errors throughout their returns. I was reminded when some time ago I received this as a return for a search of the exact meaning of the word charbon:

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary – Cite This Source – Share This

charbon
Malignant \Ma*lig”nant\, a. [L. malignans, -antis, p. pr. of malignare, malignari, to do or make maliciously. See Malign, and cf. Benignant.] 1. Disposed to do harm, inflict suffering, or cause distress; actuated by extreme malevolence or enmity; virulently inimical; bent on evil; malicious.

So we are not just talking about the thousands of more subtle mistakes such as:

WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
paris
WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
new york
WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
moscow

which should never appear in any dictionary, even surrounded by correctly spelled entries, as these are. The errors are grievous and often do not appear on pages with conflicting correct entries.

But enough of this teaser for today. I actually intended this note more as a warning than as a teaser: all the glitters is not gold. Stick with American Heritage at Yahoo since the one at Bartleby’s gums up your browser with adware, cookies, popups, and popunders, with Merriam-Webster’s. If you have an extra $250 per year for an excellent dictionary, give the Oxford English Dictionary a try. It contains words we haven’t used for centuries but keeps up admirably with new terminology.

3 Responses to “Online Dictionaries”

  1. Nick Says:

    I have a question that you might be able to answer. I had a professor that had a P.hD in the study of language. He said that the correct way to pronounce oxymoron was ( ox zim oron) He said that is one of the most commonly mispronounced words. I have been trying to find out if this is true, but cannot find anything on the internet that solves my dilemma. Maybe you can help.

  2. Anne Prescott Says:

    After having read your words, above, I clicked on American Heritage at Yahoo and typed in charbon. It had NOTHING on it.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your alphaDictionary for a number of years, and I thank you for making it available!

  3. Ed Garvin Says:

    I just spent a couple of minutes at Encarta and found the following. Thought you might be interested/disappointed.

    Important Notice: MSN Encarta to be Discontinued
    On October 31, 2009, MSN® Encarta® Web sites worldwide will be discontinued, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be discontinued on December 31, 2009. Additionally, Microsoft will cease to sell Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium software products worldwide by June 2009. We understand that Encarta users may have questions regarding this announcement so we have prepared this list of questions and answers below. Please keep reading if you would like more information about these changes to Encarta.

    Why are these Encarta Web sites and software products being discontinued?
    Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.
    Microsoft’s vision is that everyone around the world needs to have access to quality education, and we believe that we can use what we’ve learned and assets we’ve accrued with offerings like Encarta to develop future technology solutions. In doing so, we feel strongly that we are making the right investments that will help make our vision a reality.
    When are these Encarta Web sites and software products being discontinued?
    MSN Encarta worldwide (except Japan) will be discontinued on October 31, 2009. MSN Encarta Japan will be discontinued on December 31, 2009. After these specified dates, the Web sites will no longer be available.

    Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium software products are also being discontinued. Microsoft will stop making them available for sale by June 2009.

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