Chronicle of Higher Education, “In the Digital Era, Our Dictionaries Read Us”

March 11, 2013

Jennifer Howard, “In the Digital Era, Our Dictionaries Read Us” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 11, 2013)

Blending once-discrete references online creates a “kind of blossoming map of words and meaning” that readers can explore, says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and executive producer of the Web site Visual Thesaurus and its sister site He chairs the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and writes columns on language for The Boston Globe. “Dictionaries are not just static entities anymore,” he says. “You have to be able to react to current events, how people are going to look things up.”

On, Zimmer and his colleagues serve up not just a standard dictionary definition but what he calls “blurbs,” chattier and sometimes whimsical explanations designed to help a reader understand and remember what he or she looks up. Look up “hirsute,” for instance, and you get this: “What do Santa Claus, Bigfoot, and unicorns have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re completely real, they’re also hirsute: very, very hairy creatures,” the site explains. “The word is pronounced ‘HER-suit,’ so if you see a woman wearing a furry jacket with matching pants, you could say, “Her suit is hirsute.” Just make sure it’s actually a suit and not her real hair.”

Like online versions of print dictionaries, sites like also give users the sounds as well as the meanings of words. (Trained opera singers “are perfect for this kind of work,” Zimmer says. “They know how to enunciate.”) And in the handy bells-and-whistles category, quizzes and other extras reflect the enthusiasm for language-learning games that’s taken hold among students and educators, he says. “You have to meet young learners on the terrain they’re comfortable with.”

Read the rest here.

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