December 06, 2003

Dictionaries on parade

YiLing Chen-Josephson has an interesting consumer-oriented evaluation of collegiate dictionaries at Slate.

The methodology is simultaneously quantitative and arbitrary. The author allocates up to 12.5 points for "usage guidance" but 25 points for "enjoyment", and rates the dictionaries subjectively on these dimensions. The score (up to 25 points) allocated for word stock is defined more objectively, in terms of the number of words found from a certain list, but the list itself is idiosyncratically defined:

... words that I knew but wanted to understand better (like regret, jealous, and overdetermined); words with disputed usages (including aggravate, disinterested, fortuitous); words with potentially interesting etymologies (e.g., chauvinism, juggernaut, lagniappe); neologisms and slang (e.g., blogger, booty, yay); anything friends had looked up recently (e.g., Panglossian, condominium, alembic); as well as the words I didn't know in the last book I read, J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello.

An interesting set, but I wonder how the test would come out if someone else tried the same thing.

If I had a horse in this race, I'd hope for a poll of users to determine the importance of various dimensions of evaluation, ratings by a sample of users to award points on those dimensions, etc. Still, Chen-Josephson's approach produces a review that seems informative, even if I don't believe that the apparently quantitative rankings are likely to be stable over similar exercises by other evaluators, or even by the author in another life stage.

One surprising omission: there is no evaluation of on-line or other digital access (though the Merriam-Webster Collegiate's web site and CD-ROM are mentioned). Surely most students among Slate's readership now do most of their word lookup digitally? When I ask (a non-scientific but quite random sample of) Penn students about this, I find that nearly all of them have paper dictionaries -- often bought for them by parents or other relatives -- but few of them use them. When they want or need to know something about a word, they usually look it up on line. So maybe a more careful survey of actual dictionary users and dictionary usage would have been beside the point from the perspective of paper-dictionary market research.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 6, 2003 12:32 PM