Thursday, July 01, 2010

Will Google Supplant The Dictionary?

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Google knows everything.

Nowadays, thanks to the ubiquitous presence, power, and convenience of the great Google search engine, reference books the world over are gathering dust. No longer are phone books, encyclopedias, newspapers, or maps things which all people must own.

But it seems Google has turned even the venerable dictionary, former mainstay of every self-respecting home or business library, into an unnecessary, out-dated info-relic destined for relegation to garage sales and recycling bins everywhere.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Julia Angwin highlights the ways in which those functions most often fulfilled by dictionaries – checking spelling, finding definitions, locating sample sentences, etc. – can now be carried out more effectively and efficiently using a Google single-word search:

These days, however, Google is our database of meaning. Want to know how to spell assiduous? Type it incorrectly and Google will reply, in its kind-hearted way: "Did you mean: assiduous"? Why yes, Google, I did.

Google then spits out a bunch of links to Web definitions for assiduous. Without clicking on any of them, the two-sentence summaries below each link give me enough to get a sense of the word: "hard working," and "diligent."

Still not satisfied? Fine, click on the Google "News" tab – and you will be directed to a page of links where the word assiduous appears in news stories. Presto, sample sentences and usage examples.

"You and I can be our own lexicographers now," says Barbara Wallraff, the longtime language columnist for The Atlantic magazine. "We don't need dictionaries."

Aside from the tips given in the article, internet users can use Google as a kind of "super-thesaurus," conducting "reverse definition" word searches constructed in the following format (typed directly into a Google search field without quote marks):

"word meaning X" (where X is a short definition of the word you wish to find)

For example, here's the reverse word search I just used to come up with the word "esoteric" that I needed for the last paragraph in this post:

"word meaning information available only to a select few"

The article also sings the praises of a wonderful online dictionary that everyone should have in their bookmarks list. Wordnik provides easy access to definitions from a variety of major online dictionaries, but then goes a step farther by listing a host of sample sentences for each word studied taken from unimpeachable academic sources as well as from current newspaper usage and vernacular found on Twitter.

Dictionaries still have a place for those requiring more obscure information about particular words: etymology, history, esoteric definitions, etc. But as Angwin's WSJ piece suggests, Google has already become all the dictionary most people will ever need.

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