Saturday, November 19, 2011

The death of the dictionary and the directory

Two mighty books you are no longer likely to find in your home, particularly if you are not a writer or educator, are the English dictionary and the telephone directory. These thousand-page reference books, when they were lying around the place, served two useful purposes: you referred to them to look up a genuine word or meaning and phone number or name or if you did not refer to them, then you used them as dumbbells to develop muscles. Really, I am serious.

While the dictionary has been replaced by the more sophisticated online version, sitting on your desktop or cellphone (I recommend the free version of WordWeb from Princeton University) and thesaurus in MS-Word, the directory has been replaced by the virtual phone book — number-names that you find everywhere — on corporate websites, personal blogs, social networking sites, contact lists in mobile phones, bottom of emails, and chat.

I remember, when I was in school, the father of a friend of mine used to throw the dictionary at his son every time he asked the meaning of a word. "Look up the word first. If you still don't get it, then ask me," his father said. The repetitive lexical act helped build my friend's vocabulary and spelling. How many fathers throw the dictionary at their children? Inversely, how many kids ask their fathers the meaning of new words? 

Today, Google a word or sentence and it will throw about 8,300,000 results in 0.20 seconds at you — something no dictionary on earth can match. While I admit to Googling words and phrases in office, I rarely do so at home where I prefer to refer to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary and A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler (Second Edition revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, 1975). I also refer to a fifty-year old pocket-sized Collins English Gem Dictionary (for sentimental reason) and a recent edition of The Economist Style Guide: The best-selling guide to English usage (for my newspaper), both very handy and useful.

So, has Google killed the dictionary? No, it hasn't, we have. Google has only made the task easier and faster and enriching. The choice of referring to the physical or virtual lexicon is still ours. It's like saying I don't meet my friends anymore because we meet on Facebook. You can still meet your friends — who’s stopping you?

Replacing the physical directory with a virtual phonebook makes more sense. Unlike the dictionary, you have nothing to lose if you refer to one or the other. You need a number and you need it fast — only Google or Gadget can give it to you in 0.80 seconds.

In the 1970s and 1980s, people in India used to wait in long queues to pick up their legitimate two-part telephone directory from state-owned telecom companies. Then, a year later, you went in for the revised edition provided you surrendered the previous year's lot. That's how it worked. The government phonebooks were replaced by the yellow pages which gave you an elaborate list of products and services as well as classified advertisements. These were handy, too, particularly if you were looking for a plumber or painter.

All this was a long time before the telecom revolution swept India and put multiple phones in the hands of every Indian.

The phonebook had other uses, though. For instance, in John Irving's The World According to Garp, the writer T.S. Garp got the names of his characters out of the phonebook. Did writers in real life do that? I am sure they did. I know parents of newborns leafed through the telephone directory looking for unusual names for their babies. No one bothered to check the numbers.


  1. I still am fond of my dictionaries and they are still kept handy. The phone directory. Not so much.

  2. Yes, Charles, me too. The OALD is a fine dictionary and fulfills my requirement.

  3. I still keep my old one with me though I doubt my children will ever use one!

  4. Same here, Mystica. Dictionaries are used best if they are close at hand.

  5. Great! thanks for the share!