Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 13 • June 2005
If dictionaries are free, who will buy them?
If dictionaries are free, who will buy them? The
question looms over publishing houses like a slow-motion tsunami.
Dictionaries are now free, on the web and bundled with Microsoft Office and
other products, so where is the publishers’ income stream going to come from?
Articles in the last four editions of this newsletter
have addressed the title question. Charles Levine [KDN9, 2001] opened
the debate in optimistic mode, seeing signs of growth in English-language
lexicography despite the web. Joseph Esposito’s response [KDN10, 2002] was
“grim vision … when I complained
about Microsoft bundling a spell checker, with its limited dictionary, into
Word ages ago, the techies I knew all laughed at me. Now that most of them
have burned through their venture capital after Microsoft
"integrated" the gist of their products into Windows, we all cry
into our lattes together.”
History: a dictionary in every household
In the twentieth century, a number of European and North
American publishers occupied the fertile coastal strip of “a dictionary in
every household”. Dependable as the cycle of one generation growing up and
handing over to the next, it was a large and enviable market, in harmony with
the grand and noble agenda of universal education. To be sure, the coastal
strip was sometimes crowded with competitors, but the soil was good: there
were always more households to buy
dictionaries. They don’t need to buy them any more.
There is no use lamenting the
lost market. It may disappear with varying speeds: as Esposito notes and
“In the absence of growth, the
old business will be strained for capital, which will beget smaller
investments, which will in turn hasten the decline. In the short term, this
will redound to the benefit of market leaders, such as Merriam-Webster and
The market which is collapsing is the monolingual,
emblematic “dictionary-at-home” market (the role of which has always been
complex: status symbol for spelling, scrabble and – sometimes – schoolwork).
Different markets, notably the boom EFL one and bilinguals that people need
for travel and language-learning, have different trajectories.
For the regular monolingual centerpiece, away from that lush
dictionary-in-each-household coastal strip, what is there?
The key lies in quality. Most free dictionaries are not
very good. Most people don’t care: a dictionary is a dictionary is a
dictionary, good or bad, and one is plenty. Some free ones are even quite
good; Esposito and Levine note the quality of the Encarta dictionary,
possibly the first of a new breed of market-swamping, “good-enough”
But the minority of people for whom language is their
trade do care. They are the translators and academics, etc. The numbers are
tiny compared to the golden age but, in this, dictionary publishing is undergoing
the same transformation as many other markets with the advent of the
internet: the market fractures, and where there were
a small number of products selling to millions, there are now millions of
products – selling far smaller numbers – to billions. The up side is that
customers can be found all over the globe and, once found,
they are the right customers for the product so are likely to be willing to
The nice thing about this is that making good
dictionaries, as opposed to bad ones, is what every lexicographer wants to
do. There is usually tension between lexicographer and publisher – better vs cheaper – and the change in the market gives more
weight to the lexicographer’s case. While Esposito despairs at the
traditional publishers being left “to focus on the scraps Microsoft leaves on
the floor”, we note that the market for the most accurate, the most
consistent and the most current account of a language (or source-target pair)
is far more than a scrap.
Of course, language professionals will be online.
Lexicographically, this is exciting as it means the dictionary can be far
better than any that went before: it is not constrained by space, and we can
open our vision to the dictionary as an object integrated with the underlying
corpus resources (as in Word Sketches1). But that is a different
topic: here, our concern is for income streams.
Many of the language professionals are associated with
universities and libraries. They are traditional customers for dictionaries,
have substantial budgets, and, with physical space ever at a premium, are
often enthusiastic about services which do not incur extra demands on space
For example, Oxford Reference Online2 is an
online subscription service, sold almost exclusively as a site licence to
institutions, incorporating a wide range of Oxford University Press’s
reference materials. It is very successful. Extensions which focus on
language resources are planned. Of course, OUP has a wonderful brand, and has
so many resources that it is able to offer a very broad resource, a
one-stop-shop which is attractive to libraries. Others probably need to
assemble into consortia (branding according to the best-known brand in each
market). It is a route out of the path of the tsunami.
Dictionaries for computers?
All of the above is about
dictionaries for people to use. Esposito, writing in 2002, says
real game for Microsoft is using lexical databases within computer
algorithms, as in natural-language processing.”
Parish, too, stresses that Microsoft is an energetic
customer for dictionaries for NLP (aka Language
Across NLP, researchers are finding ways of solving
problems using corpora. While high-quality, well-structured hand-crafted
resources currently support technologies that corpus-derived resources don’t,
the list is shrinking. Even three years ago, Esposito’s remarks looked right,
but now, as NLP has changed, and while it may often be a short-term
convenience for Microsoft and others to take publishers’ resources, it is not
an income stream for the long term. While post-editing corpus-derived
resources is a job that will need doing for some time yet, it is less than a
glorious future for the grand old names of dictionary publishing.
3 D.J. Prinsloo and G-M de Schryver
2003. Non-word error detection in current South African spellcheckers. Southern African Linguistics and Applied
Language Studies 21/4 (Special issue on 'Human Language Technology in
[For a version of this article with responses from Esposito and Levine, visit http://kdictionaries.com/kdn/kdn1307.html ]