Dictionary porn

The only naked things in this post are my foot and a cat.

A surprise for you: linguists hate dictionaries.  There are attitudinal reasons for this: one gets tired of undergraduates going on about how they must surely be The Official Source For What Words Really Mean.  There are technical reasons for this: there’s an enormous amount of relevant information about words that dictionaries very rarely include–collocations (words that occur together more often than would be expected by chance–strong wind but heavy rain and stuff like that), argument structure (what kinds of things must occur with a word, e.g. to drink is transitive, except when it’s intransitive, in which case it means to drink alcohol specifically), crucial stuff like that.

More information on dictionaries:

Despite the fact that we’re not crazy about dictionaries, I would guess that most linguists probably deal with their distaste for them the same way that I do: I have a lot of them.  How many, I couldn’t really tell you.  In fact, I can’t even tell you how many English dictionaries I have.  Do I count the dictionary of lumberjack language?  How about my medical dictionaries (I have two)?  My biology dictionary?  My woefully-out-of-date dictionary of linguistics?

With all of that: which dictionary do I use?  Probably not a shocker to anyone who knows me: I have many monolingual general English dictionaries lying around my place, and there are some electronic ones that I use, as well.  Here are some of them, and when/why I use them:

This is my Macmillan Visual Dictionary.  As you might guess, it’s been in my life for a while; I find it humorous that despite being a visual dictionary, it has no picture on the cover anymore, since it has no cover…Visual dictionaries are super-useful for some things.  I used this one to do fieldwork.  Since visual dictionaries group things thematically, they’re great for taking a structured approach to learning vocabulary in a foreign language.  One of the more obscure recent additions to my dictionary collection is a bilingual French/Chinese visual dictionary–why not…
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This is my beloved Webster’s 3rd–picture of my foot included for scale.  When I was a young man, my father told me that if I ever saw one used, I must buy it.  As it turned out, this was my college graduation present to myself.  Based on the writing inside the front cover, I have reason to believe that it began its life as the property of the United States Navy: scrawled in heavy black marker are the words “Oil shack.”  On a naval vessel, the oil shack is the control center for routing fuel to the boiler rooms and for monitoring its purity, or at least that was the case back when US naval vessels still had boiler rooms.
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This is my beloved American Heritage College Dictionary.  (“College” dictionaries are usually what are called “desk dictionaries”–as far as I know, it’s mainly a description of size.  Picture of a cat included for scale.  Some things that I like about the American Heritage College, which I was introduced to by my second linguistics professor: for usage questions, they have a panel, and they give the statistics on the panel’s votes; in the back, there’s a dictionary of Indo-European roots; there are just enough pictures to be helpful without interrupting the flow of the whole thing.  (Yes, dictionaries can flow–or not.)
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Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.  This one has a special purpose.  It was published in the early 1960s, and it’s my go-to dictionary for American literature from the first half of the 20th century.  You can find a review of it here.  (Of course people review dictionaries!)
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My beloved compact Oxford English Dictionary.  Books have been written about this one.  Books have been written about its first editor.  You might like Simon Winchester’s The professor and the madman: A tale of murder, madness, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Somebody clearly used mine as a resting place for paint cans.
zsa_zsa_gabor_-_1959
Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1959. Picture source: Rogers and Cowan talent agency. Downloaded from Wikimedia.

This being the 21st century, there are also some very good online monolingual English dictionaries, as well as a couple dictionary apps that I like a lot.  For the moment, I’ll just leave you with this Zsa Zsa Gabor quote:

The only way to learn a language properly, in fact, is to marry a man of that nationality. You get what they call in Europe a ‘sleeping dictionary.’ Of course, I have only been married five times, and I speak seven languages. I’m still trying to remember where I picked up the other two.  Source: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/dictionary.html

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Dictionary porn”

    1. In American English, “NOUN porn” is used today to refer to photographs of anything that you’re passionate about. If you go to Google Images and search for “food porn,” you’ll find a lot of pictures of hamburgers, doughnuts, stuff like that. “Poodle porn” gets you a lot of pictures of poodles.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I agree with most of your complaints about dictionaries. But what I find most irksome is there are no online dictionaries that can be repurposed as input into a natural language processing system. Yes, there are various research lexicons that have been built over the years, but they are toys. Why can’t I mine the pronunciation lexicons contained in Webster’s, or the inflections, or the senses contained or implied in meanings and examples? You can’t because it’s all proprietary and not available electronically. What’s worse, the pronunciation data is often in a proprietary format that is only vaguely related to the IPA. And the inflections are presented in a format that is mostly human interpretable but ambiguous to machine.

    By now there are dozens and perhaps more proprietary lexicons floating around every tech company that purports to do translation or other NLP tasks. Even Oracle has its version of an electronic lexicon that is used by various software applications, although when I was there, my team rejected its use because its API proved unusable for our needs. I’m a few years out-of-touch with the NLP research world, but in my recollection the closest thing to a freely available lexicon is WordNet. It now contains more than 155,000 nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, with more than 200,000 word-sense pairs. But it is only in English. It is stored in ASCII, making foreign imports harder to transliterate, there are no pronunciations, there is no subcategorization information, and its meanings are only implied in the relationships among strings. Richer in its representation of meaning is FrameNet which represents 13,000 word meanings (senses, really) as semantic roles as they occur in semantic frames. There are frame net siblings in a handful of other languages. But, of course, neither WordNet nor FrameNet have word phonetics, phonology, or morphology. For that, one needs to build or purchase or steal another lexicon which doesn’t overlap with either semantic tool.

    Perhaps things have changed. But I suspect most of the change that has occurred is a trade secret.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right on target. I read the introduction to the book “Chinese Natural Language Processing” the other day. The basic point of the entire introduction was this:

      1. To do Chinese natural language processing, you need big electronic dictionaries.
      2. There are no publicly available big electronic dictionaries.

      QED.

      Like

  2. I’m not a linguist, but an experienced translator. Situation’s the same. They feel like something weighing down on my life and environment. Whenever I move, I try to cut down on some of them but it’s obviously not an option.

    Liked by 1 person

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