Infinite Scroll

Online dictionaries can’t keep pace with a Babel-like internet

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary?” David Bowie asked in a BowieNet Live Chat in April 27, 1999. “When I first read it, I thought it was a really, really long poem about everything.”

Bowie’s first dictionary was likely much like my first dictionary — an eight-inch-thick tome. It was big, heavy bitch with thin-skinned pages that stuck to your fingers, covered with a stew of spider-fine print. I’ve grown up, and the dictionary has shrunk. The big, heavy book first became a couple of featherweight CD-ROMs; then the CD-ROMs thinned into weightless internet. This disappearing act is a paradoxical one, for as the dictionary has journeyed from analog to electronic to digital, it both holds more and is easier to use.

Let me put it this way: When the Oxford English Dictionary began its transition to CD-ROMs in 1984, it held about 400,000 definitions comprising about 6 million words in 13 volumes. By the time the OED, arguably the gold standard of dictionaries since its first publication in 1888, moved online in 1998, its second edition, released in 1989, had expanded to 600,000 definitions and 20 volumes. The third edition will be digital only — no print at all — and no one knows how many definitions or words it will be. What people do know is that it’ll be late. Originally to be released in 2005, the third edition of the OED is now slated for 2037.

It took the first modern English dictionary writer, Samuel Johnson, just under a decade to write his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language. Begun in 1746 at the behest of London booksellers, Johnson thought he could finish the work in three years, but it wasn’t published until 1755. While there were about 150 English dictionaries before Johnson’s, these weren’t “modern” dictionaries; primarily lists, these works were arranged by subject, not alphabetical order. In its 42,733 definitions, Johnson’s dictionary set the template for the prescriptive dictionary, one that tells you what a word means and shows you how writers have used it over time. (The other major kind of dictionary is descriptive, which mostly forgoes examples of usage and provides a definition.)

Before becoming a lexicographer, Johnson had made his literary mark as an essayist, a translator and a poet. Johnson limned his dictionary with precise concerns about codifying English spelling and pronunciation, and he buttressed his definitions with usages from English authors, leaning heavily on Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. Many literary scholars claim Johnson’s dictionary as one of their own, but as much as it’s a literary work, Johnson’s dictionary is a political one. Eighteenth-century French lexicographers were outstripping their cousins across the Channel in dictionary quality and quantity; Johnson felt the pinch to put English words on an equal footing.

In his dictionary’s preface, Johnson calls the lexicographer “the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius.” This is bullshit at best and disingenuous at worst. Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t just defining English against the French; it was also defining English for the British. By the mid-18th century, the British Empire included colonies in Canada, America, and the West Indies; trading routes across India; naval bases in the Mediterranean; and, of course, a robust slave trade from Africa into the Americas. Johnson’s uniting English speakers through common spelling and pronunciation created a common consciousness in a singular sweep of authority.

The limits of your language are the limits of your world

So successful was Johnson that his dictionary stood unchallenged for more than a century. In 1857, the Philological Society of London surveyed the lexicographical landscape, pronounced it woeful and embarked on the solution that would lead to the Oxford English Dictionary. It took 75 years, three editors (give or take — it’s a little hard to count), about 2,000 unpaid contributors, and 13 volumes before the complete first edition of the OED hit the shelves with a resounding thud in 1933. Using Johnson’s prescriptive dictionary as a template, the OED set itself up as the “definitive record of the English language,” as it calls itself in its hysterically tautological tagline. Tracing usage of English words through British time and British space, the first edition of the OED drew heavily from Shakespeare, but it also included quotes from Chaucer, George Eliot, anonymous Medieval works in English and many, many others.

Mindfully presenting itself as the final authority in English, the OED shared Johnson’s insincerity about a lexicographer’s task — so too did Noah Webster in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, the first modern dictionary of American English. All of the writers of these dictionaries have one major aim, and it’s not to tell you the difference between “appraise” and “apprise.” It’s to codify language, and — make no mistake — this is a nationalistic enterprise. The limits of your language are the limits of your world, to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, and these three pillars of lexicography understood that to create a nationalist identity you had to make sure your people were quite literally speaking the same language.

As Johnson’s Dictionary, the strong voice of a single man, gave way to the OED, a group effort overseen by an editor, another change took place: the dictionary’s authority became obfuscated. It’s not that the OED was without authority — backed by the Oxford Press, the OED was all about authority — it’s that the group hid the power center. An iconic print reference book, the OED’s weight has long been both literal and figurative, but by divesting itself of a strong central, named voice, the OED effectively hid the men behind the curtain. And I do mean “men”; for decades, dictionaries were entirely the work of men who reflexively used sexist word choices (racism, unquestionably present, seems yet to be documented or questioned).

Traditional reference books rely on writing that’s vetted and edited with a strong philosophical aim; however, when you move from capital-A Authority that is a person’s name to small-a authority that is the anonymity of a group, you open the door to democratization, and that is precisely what the web has capitalized upon. Sites that crowd-source information — whether Wikipedia, Genius, Wiktionary, Rotten Tomatoes or Quora — rip out the center of traditional authority, replacing a singular vision with multiplicity, but that groundwork was laid with the OED, a work that was too large for a single human to make. To give you some perspective, three editors died in the making of the first edition of OED, and that was before it ever went to the printers.

Oxford’s Word of the Year was the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. Lexicographers are gaining on the programmers

It’s no shock that a dictionary that took more than 70 years to publish its first edition would be fashionably late in getting on the web. The OED got online in 1999, but Dictionary.com, the first online dictionary, appeared in 1995. All these years later, Dictionary.com, a site fueled by the Random House Dictionary and supported by content from other dictionaries, remains the world leader, boasting a global Alexa ranking of 590 and the top dictionary site in the U.S. with a ranking of 307. Just below sit Urban Dictionary and Merriam-Webster online, which appeared online about the same time as the OED. All of these sites are thriving, regardless of whether they’re free, like Dictionary.com or Urban Dictionary, or subscription, like the OED (which also has a descriptive free site, Oxford Dictionaries).

So comfy are dictionaries on the web that they pwn writers on Twitter. “No one cares how you feel,” Merriam-Webster tweeted at Slate editor Gabriel Roth, who had chastised the dictionary for acting like the “chill parent who lets your friends come over and get high.” Social media may be giving dictionaries like Merriam-Webster a social conscience — it’s the first dictionary to define “they” as a third-person singular pronoun and to add “genderqueer” to its lexicon — but dictionaries have long been in the business of not caring how you feel. Roth seemed surprised that a dictionary “can indeed act like a dick in public,” but dictionaries have always been written by people, and people are dicks.

Social media spats aside, Urban Dictionary is the sign of the current, crowd-sourced times. It’s so far afield of Johnson’s Dictionary that when you visit, you can almost hear Samuel Johnson wailing from his grave. Created by Aaron Peckham as a parody response to Dictionary.com in 1999, Urban Dictionary crowd-sources slang definitions from its users (Wiktionary uses the same method for a fuller range of words). There is no editor. There is no authority but the crowd, who up-votes or down-votes definitions, making them more or less visible. For example, there are 558 Urban Dictionary definitions for the term “fuck boy,” and the one thing that they agree on is that no one can agree on what “fuck boy” means.

The first definition the Urban Dictionary offers for “fuck boy” is a “person who is a weak ass pussy that ain’t bout shit,” and while this definition may or may not fit “fuck boy” (I’m inclined to down-vote), it certainly fits “scrub.” TLC begins their 1999 anti-anthem “No Scrubs” with a fairly perfect descriptive definition: “A scrub is a guy that think he’s fly and is/Also known as a bust-down/Always talkin’ about what he wants/And just sits on his broke ass.” Here’s a fun fact: Green’s Online Dictionary dates “scrub” to 1698, and the OED dates it to 1598. While disagreeing on scrub’s inaugural voyage into print, the dictionaries converge on its meaning. Green’s defines “scrub” as a “lout, a failure” and the OED as a “mean insignificant fellow.” TLC would probably agree; neither Green nor the OED quotes them.

David Bowie said we can read the dictionary as a really, really long poem, but now that poem is bigger, and wider, and lengthier

What Urban Dictionary’s crowd-sourcing information gains in jouissance and scope, it lacks in factual accuracy — without editors doing the gritty work of fact-checking, you have to take crowdsourcing dictionaries with liberal side-eye (which Urban Dictionary tells us is “A facial expression expressing one’s criticism, disapproval, animosity, or scorn,” or “To give someone a knowing look,” or “When a member of the opposite sex looks from the corner of their [sic] at you”). The irony is that Urban Dictionary isn’t doing anything new in lexicography. Famously, James Murray, the OED’s first editor in the late 19th century, sent out calls for amateur philologists to send quotations for word usages, essentially crowd-sourcing his sources — and ended up with William Chester Minor, an American army surgeon committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for murder.

“Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” Noah Cross says in the 1974 movie Chinatown. You can add websites like Urban Dictionary to this list. Urban Dictionary, for all its democratic chaos, has been embraced as an authority, appearing as evidence in multiple trials across the U.S. Seventeen years after it first appeared on the web, Urban Dictionary has earned its place in the world, even with those of us who take issue with it.

There’s this two-episode arc in season four of the new Doctor Who about a dead planet called simply “the Library.” The greatest collection of books and information in the universe, the Library is an entire planet housing everything ever written. It is entirely unpeopled, but for a computer interface in the form of slick, human-shaped, CGI-faced information kiosks. In its visuals of echoing spaces and menacing shadows, the two Doctor Who episodes capture the wonder and the faintly rotting scent of near-endless stacks of books, as well as the slick chill of unpeopled information. There’s this creeping feeling that the Library will crumble under its own weight, topple and crash into a great blue void.

The internet Dictionary is not yet the Library, but it could be. As dictionaries grow larger, so too grows the question of whether they will some day get so big as to become unmanageable. Programmers must stay one step ahead of lexicographers in perpetuity, staving off that collapse with the ticka-ticka-tick of their fingers. I imagine an interminable breathy race of introverts, arcane languages, and heated keyboards. The OED’s Word of the Year for 2015 was the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji, suggesting that lexicographers are gaining on the programmers, encroaching on computer speak, accepting it as their own. How limitless the language, how exhausting the work of racing to contain it.

Dictionary writing is an endless task, and the web makes real the possibility that dictionaries themselves will be infinite. The expanding universe has nothing on the big, endless bang of lexicographers — lexicographers like those anonymous folks at the OED, gathering quotes from “Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Mobb Deep,” as Virginia Heffernan notes in her saudade-laden look at the print OED’s end — or lexicographers like you and me, adding our own gloss to the words that inflame our imaginations. Bowie was not wrong that you can read the dictionary as a really, really long poem, but now that poem is bigger, and wider, and lengthier. That poem can be written by you, by me, by anyone with an internet connection, a love for words, and the ego to care. Everything awaits, right between “everyplace” and “everyway.”

A former academic, Chelsea G. Summers writes almost exclusively about sex. Her writing has appeared in Hazlitt, Vice, the New Republic, Adult Magazine, and the Guardian, among others.