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Are all dictionaries equal?

All dictionary publishers want to convince their customers that their dictionaries solve their needs best (or better), at least in some respect.

Most of the dictionaries we have looked at so far have followed some sort of policy when selecting which words to include. Expert-produced dictionaries also have policies about how to define these words and what other types of language information to provide (we will discuss types of dictionary information more fully in Week 2).

However, some commercial e-dictionary companies are less concerned with the quality and currency of their lexicographical content than they are with other features that might appeal to certain types of user, such as the overall size of the resource (as measured by the number of headwords) and the application of the latest technology. Dictionaries produced by prestigious publishing houses are reviewed by other lexicographers and attract the interest of English teachers and linguists. These other dictionaries tend to be ignored by academics interested in lexicographical content and are more likely to be reviewed in computer magazines, in terms of the software they employ.

Uncovering dark practices

The article ‘Alternative e-dictionaries: uncovering dark practices’ looks at some commercial bilingual e-dictionaries and dictionary aggregators that are widely used in East Asia. Portals provide access to multiple English dictionaries, some up-to-date and from prestigious publishing houses and others out of date and lacking in authority. As we saw in Step 1.7, speakers of other languages often find it quicker and easier to consult a dictionary which translates to and from their first language and many will choose to consult an unreliable bilingual dictionary rather than a prestigious monolingual dictionary, even if such dictionaries are available via the same portal. Commercial e-dictionary companies sometimes seem ignorant of the differences between various types of monolingual dictionary, using the blanket term ‘Oxford Dictionary’ or ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ for all publications from Oxford University Press, for example, and apparently confusing the Oxford Dictionary of English with the Oxford English Dictionary.

‘Usability’ versus ‘usefulness’

Laufer and Kimmel (1997:362) distinguish between ‘dictionary usability’ – ‘the willingness on the part of the consumer to use the dictionary in question, and his/her satisfaction from it’ – and ‘dictionary usefulness’ – ‘the extent to which a dictionary is helpful in providing the necessary information to its user’. Some commercial bilingual e-dictionaries are highly usable, but ultimately not very useful. A typical problem is the listing of hundreds, possibly thousands, of derived forms which have the potential to exist but which are in fact unattested. The article about alternative e-dictionaries cites headwords of this sort, such as ‘examinant’, ‘examinate’, ‘examinationism’ and ‘examinationist’, which used to be listed on the Kingsoft Powerword Jin Shan Ci Ba Chinese aggregator site. The article also draws attention to long-obsolete idiomatic expressions listed in dictionaries of this kind, for example, ‘not worth a leek’ and ‘thick as mutton’. Few native speakers will even have heard of these expressions.

Some of these dictionary aggregators offer access to lots of dictionaries which lack information about how frequent a word is and any restrictive labelling which might usefully mark a word or expression as taboo, technical, obsolete and so on. (We will discuss these types of dictionary information in Week 2.) These dictionaries also tend to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. An uninformed user might, however, be greatly impressed by the wealth of language information these sites offer, and by other facilities such as wordlists which purport to help with language learning.

Your task

Have you any experience of unreliable bilingual e-dictionaries such as these?

What can be done to help language learners who are unaware of their defects?


Laufer, B., and Kimmel, M. (1997) ‘Bilingualised dictionaries: How learners really use them’. ScienceDirect System 25 (3) 361-369 [online] available from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0346251X97000286 [5 November 2019]

Nesi, H. (2012) ‘Alternative e-dictionaries: uncovering dark practices’. in Electronic Lexicography. ed. by Granger, S. & Paquot, M. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 357-372. [online] available from https://curve.coventry.ac.uk/open/file/e161b5ac-086b-eba6-1345-95270a41945e/1/Alternative%20e-dictionaries.pdf [5 November 2019]

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University