…surprising things happen. For instance, lexicographers can track word lookups and peg them to news. A celebrity death or political debate now becomes a “vocabulary event.” I spent the last few weeks talking to lexicographers about how dictionary-making changes when it goes digital (“In the Digital Era, Our Dictionaries Read Us“).
For dictionary makers, going electronic opens up all kinds of possibilities. It’s not just that digital dictionaries can be embedded in the operating systems of computers and e-readers so that they’re always at hand. They can be updated far more easily and often than their print cousins, and they can incorporate material like audio pronunciations and thesauruses. Unsuccessful word “look-ups,” or searches that don’t produce satisfying results, can point lexicographers to terms that haven’t yet made their way into a particular dictionary or whose definitions need to be amended or freshened. Online readers can click a button and contribute their own word lore, extending a tradition that dates back at least as far as the late 19th century, when James Murray and his team compiled the first Oxford English Dictionary with the help of thousands of word slips sent in by the public.
I had a lot of fun working on this story. I still have my enormous Webster’s at home, though.