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.

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