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When was the last time you used a print dictionary?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I used to keep a small dictionary in my bedside table, another in the end table near the couch, one on my home office desk and another on my desk at work. I’m rather particular about looking up words I don’t know, and I always wanted a dictionary within reach. When I was an undergraduate geology major, I had a specialized geology dictionary that I kept near my desk to help me understand words in my textbooks and scholarly articles that weren’t included in standard dictionaries.

Fast forward to 2014 and three of these dictionaries are gone, the fourth (in my office at work) is rarely used, and the geology dictionary is kept primarily for nostalgia. Several tools have replaced the standard dictionary:

  • When I’m using my Nook eReader, I can simple select a word to view a definition.
  • When I’m reading a book, my phone is normally in reach for quick lookups.
  • When I’m working, it’s easier to look up a word online.
  • Even when I need to go in depth with a word and its origins, I can turn to the online Oxford English Dictionary.

If you haven’t used it before, Google’s define feature is pretty handy. Just type in

define: word

While this feature works well for everyday difficult words, it is less successful for technical scientific language – those words for which my specialized geology dictionary was so handy. Luckily, we live in an age of crowd sourced knowledge.  While Google’s definition of foliation might not work from a geologic perspective, Wikipedia comes to the rescue with an entry about Foliation (geology). While Wikipedia is certainly not an dictionary, it is a great source for defining technical and scientific terms.

Screenshot of a Google search for define: foliation

Screenshot of a Google search for define: foliation

Of course, there are many technical terms that aren’t in Wikipedia. For some, this might be the time to turn to the online specialized encyclopedia available through your local library. But not me.  The problem is one of convenience (or inconvenience). If I want to use a subscription-based dictionary, first I need to remember that a dictionary on the topic exists, and I might need to know it by name. Then I have to login and navigate a probably awkward user interface in order to find my definition. While that definition might be great, I am more likely to spend a few minutes searching through Google search results in order to get to the meaning of my word.

While several studies have compared the coverage and accuracy of Wikipedia against other encyclopedias (Giles, 2005; Rector, 2008), I couldn’t identify any that examined the continued usefulness of specialized dictionaries in the age of Wikipedia and ubiquitous internet connections.

I believe that specialized dictionaries will become less useful over the next few years, replaced with freely available information on the web (including Wikipedia).

When was the last time you consulted a print dictionary? When was the last time you used a specialized dictionary?

Works cited:

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438(7070), 900–1. doi:10.1038/438900a

Rector, L. H. (2008). Comparison of Wikipedia and other encyclopedias for accuracy, breadth, and depth in historical articles. Reference Services Review, 36(1), 7–22. doi:10.1108/00907320810851998

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. metamorphmuses 9:53 pm 07/22/2014

    I have a very nice, very heavy dictionary that I never use anymore :-(

    Most of the time, when I need a definition, I need it ten minutes ago, so the Internet always wins.

    Also, the Internet’s strength is association: if I know the general concept I am looking for, but can’t remember the exact word, I can pull that up and follow the chain to the word I am looking for.

    Link to this
  2. 2. orbicularisoculi 2:41 am 07/23/2014

    Just a few days ago. Online dictionaries are handy but they do have their limitations. Case in point: Try reading a Dickens novel like Bleak House and use one to look up the obscure archaic words that are sprinkled throughout this book. My microprint Compact OED is one of my prized possessions and I will never part with it.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 8:04 am 07/23/2014

    @orbicularisoculi: As soon as I learned what the OED was I wanted one of those microprint compact versions. I never did get one. Since I am affiliated with an academic institution that subscribes to the online OED, I don’t even need to go to the shelves for those kinds of obscure words. The nice part about the online OED is that it is constantly updated, so I can get definitions and origins of 21st century words as well.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 8:06 am 07/23/2014

    @metamorphmuses: Your point about context and general concepts is an important one. On a related note, the internet is much better at helping the poor spellers among us (myself included). I have awful memories of my third grade teacher telling me to go look up how to spell particular words and spending a really long time looking through the dictionary. If I couldn’t spell the word, it is very difficult to find in an alphabetical dictionary!

    Link to this
  5. 5. evelyn haskins 3:27 am 07/24/2014


    I love my ‘Print Dictionaries’. especially my Chamber’s “Twentieth Century Dictionary”.
    The two volume “Concise Oxford” as well.
    The MacQuarie I can leave alone as it is FAR to heavy. It needs a stand which we don’t have.
    The trouble with Internet dictionaries is that they gend to be dictionaries of North American rather than English.

    I’m a bit partial to my Penguin Dictionaries (Psychology, Biology, Physical Geology, Science) as well.

    I do occasionally look up Webster when I’m stumped to understand some American usage.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 10:17 am 07/24/2014

    @evelyn: You bring up an important point that I can’t really speak to: the use of print dictionaries to understand terms from different countries (British English vs. American English) or to translate between languages. I know that my German-English dictionary was one of best friends during high school German classes, but I’ve turned to Google Translate for my recent translation needs.

    Link to this
  7. 7. OmniFormat 6:27 pm 08/10/2014

    A bit late to the party, and writing as a humanist to a science-centered blog post, but I use printed dictionaries and encyclopedias far more than online ones (the OED being an exception). E-reference books excepted, one thing print dictionaries give you is browsabilty,IMO not a particular strength of online.

    Case in point: a colleague in my English department gave a departmental lecture which stressed the term “realism,” which to literature scholars has a particular meaning, but for which in this context the usage seemed to be a bit off thereby creating comprehension problems with the talk. From my own graduate work I thought the word should have been “verisimilitude,” but a trip to my Random House dictionary proved me wrong. But just a few inches down the page were entries for both “verism” and “verismo” — neither of which I was familiar with but both more appropriate than the word I looked up.

    Online dictionaries *might* have provided me this layer of discoverability, but I doubt it. More likely I would have been offered 106,417 results for “verisimilitude.” For some applications, print still is the best source.

    Link to this

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