The Online Dictionary Is No Dwelling

by Guest Blogger
November 8th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

Abandon hope for meaning, all ye who enter here. The online dictionary gives you quick definitions; you take one and run. What do you find when you look up a word? A flashy, crowded page; words corseted and adorned with videos, jingles, links. Which definition do you grab? The most popular one, the most convenient one, the one that fits the shopper’s purposes.

A dictionary should tell you words’ common and uncommon meanings, their history, their occurrences in literature and speech. It should be a place that stays relatively still, with updates from time to time—where meaning exists, where the less popular meanings have a place, and where one can wander, pause, explore, and think. As the Internet changes our conception of dictionaries, it changes our language as well.

Let us see what happens when I look up the word “dwell” by typing “dwell definition” (without the quotes) in Google. The first hit gives a single definition for the verb (“Live in or at a specified place”) and for the noun (“A slight regular pause in the motion of a machine”). Right below these definitions, there are links to Dictionary.com, Answers.com, Merriam-Webster, and The Free Dictionary. The Dictionary.com page for “dwell” has an animated banner, followed by several ads, including “1 trick of a tiny belly”—all of this before the actual definitions. (The ads here and elsewhere may change from visit to visit.) The page on Answers.com starts out with a link to dwellstudio.com and the description, “Unique, Modern Baby, Kids and Home Decor. Bedding, Bath, Table & More.” Merriam-Webster sometimes takes you to an advertisement page before loading the actual page; on the advertisement page, only the first definition for “dwell” (“to remain for a time”) appears. The Free Dictionary assembles definitions and examples from various sources but also has animated ads and commercial links.

Isn’t this typical of services on the Internet? Yes, but a dictionary has traditionally been a sanctuary for words (a messy one, granted), and now it is not. In a dictionary without distractions, one can read a definition slowly, peruse the surrounding words, and follow trails from synonym to synonym, from cognate to cognate. Online dictionaries emphasize functionality and commerce—get your meaning and move on (and buy some bedding while you’re at it). There are rare exceptions, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary, which attracts those who are interested in words in the first place (and is funded by donations). Certain subscription-only dictionaries, such as the online Oxford English Dictionary, offer rich definitions without ads, but even the OED gives quick definitions at the outset, and the user has to click further to see the full array.

Over the long term, people may lose a sense of words’ secondary, tertiary, and rare or archaic meanings. Let’s come back to “dwell.” The lexicographer Henry Cecil Wyld posits a Proto-Indo-European root *dwal-, meaning “obscure, dark,” which over the centuries evolved into Norse and Old English words meaning “to delay” and “to hinder.” This in turn evolved into the meanings “to wander” and “to abide.” Thus “dwell” (as I hear it) has a sense of straying and restraint, of willing and unwilling lingering. It carries hints of some sort of spell or force; to dwell in a house is not only to live in it but to have some bond with it, brief or long. The Oxford English Dictionary gives numerous definitions of “dwell”—not only the ones mentioned so far, but also “to persist,” “to remain,” and “to pause,” among others. To dwell on a subject is to will oneself to it or be willed by it. Likewise, if something dwells in you, then it isn’t just a bone or nerve; it is a spirit too. Satan cries out in John Milton’s Paradise Lost,

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

One hears not only the suggestion of “dwell” in the rhyming “Hell” but also its absence. Hell is emphatically not a dwelling, not a home, and Satan knows perfectly well that he cannot make it a heaven, not even in his mind.

Stop complaining, says the pragmatic citizen of the 21st century. Just buy your own print dictionary and be done with it. Make a Heaven of Hell, relatively speaking. Yes, indeed, and I have done so, relatively speaking. Oh, relative hell! But like the vegetarian who eats meat when served by carnivore hosts, I use the online dictionary when it’s all I have before me, as do millions of others. People click for meanings in the office, at home, in school, and on the road. At this point online dictionaries have the run of the land and air. Given their ubiquity, we should insist that they make room for words and minds. Perhaps a publisher will step forward and give us a free online dictionary without ads or abridgements. That would be a worthy deed—and profitable over the long haul, too, as it would keep minds fed and good books in circulation. But maybe the long haul is slipping out of our view—precisely because words themselves have become quick fixes.

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.

11 Comments »

  1. “Over the long term, people may lose a sense of words’ secondary, tertiary, and rare or archaic meanings.”

    Yes, but…a search engine search for dwell without “define” attached (or more likely an obscure french or german phrase) might provide three or four different usages in the first ten results.

    “But maybe the long haul is slipping out of our view—precisely because words themselves have become quick fixes.”

    Yes, but…the internet is full of positive developments in reading and literature, too. No, it probably doesn’t look like it used to, but yes, people still read.

    Comment by Tyler — November 8, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  2. All of this is true, Tyler. Of course there are positive developments on the Internet.

    It would be lovely if they weren’t surrounded (or blocked out) by flashing ads.

    Certain kinds of sites (like dictionaries) should take a stand. At least one should.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 8, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  3. Do most print dictionaries list the etymology? Of the dictionaries I have in my house, only the one affectionately known as the “roach killer” (NOT that we have ever had a roach infestation!) does. And that’s typically only pulled off the shelf if the word in question is an obscure one not listed in my most frequently-used dictionary (Webster’s American Family Dictionary).

    Comment by Crimson Wife — November 11, 2011 @ 5:42 am

  4. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary does include etymology in the definitions. So does the dictionary I used for years until it fell apart–I think it was the American Heritage Dictionary. It also had an appendix on Indo-European roots.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 11, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  5. The online dictionary gives you the definition(s). Is this just a matter of your inability to focus and screen out what surrounds the material you want?

    Comment by Scott McLeod — November 13, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

  6. Well, yes. In a similar manner, a library give you the books. If people are talking loudly on their phones in the reading rooms, that shouldn’t interfere with anyone’s reading. Anyone with the ability to focus should be able to block out the noise.

    Come now.

    I just looked up “roil” (just a word that popped into my head) on Dictionary.com. At the top, below the links, there’s a “Did you know” question, and below that, a Monster.com banner ad. Below that, the word alone, without definitions; below that, two more ads: one for Prolong.com, and one for Dictionary.com. To the left, there are links; to the right, two ads: one for Word Dynamo, one for the GRE. In between the links on the left and the ads on the right, you find the definition of “roil.” And then there’s yet another, larger, ad for Word Dynamo just below the definition–so you don’t know there’s more information about “roil” unless you happen to scroll down. Oh, and if you scroll all the way down, you get a T Mobile ad.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 14, 2011 @ 7:05 am

  7. When we go to the local library, we filter out all surrounding contexts: other books and materials, posters on the wall, people who might be conferring on a project, the librarian helping someone, a community member doing research, a family with young children checking out videos, a children’s librarian doing story time, teens in the youth area, etc.

    The same is true in the digital world. And, unlike in the physical world, online we can easily implement browser plugins such as AdBlocker that help us filter out whatever we think is ‘noise’. Many of us have no trouble finding what we need online and filtering out what we don’t want to see. Just because you struggle with this doesn’t make online dictionaries unhelpful or ‘hell.’

    Comment by Scott McLeod — November 14, 2011 @ 9:52 am

  8. Scott,

    First of all, the “hell” part was meant in joking exaggeration (tying in with Paradise Lost and “dwell”). I thought the absurdity of “relative hell” was clear.

    Second, you don’t know me, but those who do can attest to my ability to filter out distractions.

    My point was that dictionaries are not just for grabbing the information you need–they’re for rumination and lingering too. Online dictionaries, in their current manifestation, do not encourage this.

    As for libraries, they need a strong element of quiet. Yes, there will be noises here and there, and yes, there will be social areas (like the library cafe, for instance), but the reading rooms should not turn into social centers. If any place should make room for quiet reading, libraries should.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 14, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  9. “My point was that dictionaries are not just for grabbing the information you need–they’re for rumination and lingering too.”

    I’m thinking this is a generational thing. I’m tail end of Gen X, almost Gen Y. When I pull out a dictionary, it’s because I want to find out the definition, pronunciation, or spelling of a particular word. I want to get the info I need so that I can get back to whatever it was I was doing when I felt the need to check the dictionary. Get in, get out, boom, done.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — November 14, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  10. It may be an “occupation thing” rather than a “generational thing.” True, if Pablo Neruda had been of Gen X/Y, we might never have had an “Oda al diccionario”:

    http://classical-bookworm.blogspot.com/2007/11/neruda-ode-to-dictionary_7393.html

    On the other hand, writing odes to dictionaries wasn’t exactly usual in his day, either.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 15, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  11. A real time explanation for the occasional “it’s crazy how language changes” comment.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.

    You probably know this already, but this is what I use… http://aaas.askdefine.com/

    Comment by Annette Johnson — November 23, 2011 @ 3:25 am

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