What do a vice-presidential debate, the discovery of Richard III’s bones or the 9/11 attacks have in common? According to Peter Sokolowski, editor for Merriam-Webster, these can be considered ‘vocabulary events’ that make readers run to their dictionaries.
In 1996 the company that had published the largest and most popular college dictionary decided to make available some of their content online. Since then, Merriam-Webster Inc. has been monitoring what words readers search for and discovered that there was an increase in the searches for specific words during major news events.
This started after the death of Princess Diana. According to Sokolowski, “the royal tragedy triggered searches on the Merriam-Webster website for ‘paparazzi’ and ‘cortege’”. Another example is the word ‘admonish’, which became the most looked-up word after the White House said it would ‘admonish’ Representative Joe Wilson for interrupting a speech by President Obama.
Certainly none of this tracking would be possible without the transition from print to digital era. Some of the leading publishers such as Macmillan Education have already announced that they will no longer make printed dictionaries and others are looking for partnerships with Amazon or Apple. This means that, whether you are using your computer, e-book, tablet or smartphone, any dictionary is just a click away.
And what is the purpose of monitoring dictionary searches?
Every time you look up a word in the Merriam-Webster website you give valuable information to lexicographers about terms that could be added or that need to be updated in their dictionary. The most looked-up word also provides data about the public’s strongest interest. This approach can also be found in other online dictionaries that are open to receive suggestions on new words or new usages of old words, the same way as James Murray and his team did with the first Oxford English Dictionary in the 19th century.
In other words it is ‘crowdsourcing’ applied to lexicography.
Even though there are many advantages in using online dictionaries, some will still miss the feeling of searching through the pages of a printed version or finding a random word. However, the digital era gives us the possibility to update information progressively as needed. A similar attitude is found in proactive terminology, which encourages terminologists to identify the topics that are likely to come up so they can provide translators with the terminology that will be needed.
So, the answer is yes! Somehow our dictionaries are reading us.