What's Wrong With Google Dictionary?: Page 2

Posted December 9, 2009

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

(Page 2 of 2)

Not only is Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary not the best English dictionary, it's not even the best learner's dictionary, according to many online sources. According to one review of learner's dictionaries, it's the lowest rated of the five dictionaries reviewed, earning a solid F for foreign students learning American English (the second lowest grade was a C+). The reviewer summarized thus: "If dictionaries were cars, the 6th edition COBUILD would be a wheelbarrow."

From a culture wars perspective, what's happening here is that the numbers people (engineers at Google) are choosing the world's dictionary, instead of the word people. And the engineers don't seem to appreciate the importance of a high-quality dictionary. It would be as if lexicographers got to choose which programming language all software engineers -- including those at Google -- used by default. ("We choose Visual Basic.NET. So easy to use!")

No wonder Google hides the origins of Google Dictionary definitions! But the obfuscation continues. Weirdly, Google Dictionary has no key, or place where abbreviations and symbols are explained -- at least that I could find. For example, one of the primary purposes of a dictionary is to serve as a guide to pronunciation. Google Dictionary has no place where users can find out what its phonetic symbols mean. In fact, it's based on A. C. Gimson's phonemic system, which uses symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet and is fairly standard.

The actual Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary provides a key or guide to the pronunciation symbols, as do all real dictionaries. Google assumes we've all memorized this system, or know what it is and where to look it up.

Let's test their assumption. You're far more educated than the average Google user. How do you pronounce this?: '_bf_ske_t (The word is "obfuscate," but without a key, the pronunciation symbols are useless to most users.)

It's just as well. The pronunciations, if you could understand them, would probably do more harm than good. The Collins dictionary glosses over international, regional and even contextual variations in pronunciation, providing one generic, international pronunciation for every word.

Parts of speech are helpfully included in a lighter color, but they're not explained, either. Many users may not know what "N-UNCOUNT" means, for example, and Google doesn't say.

Why isn't any of this specified? Google's attitude appears to be, "don't worry your pretty little head about all that hard academic stuff. Just accept all this at face value."

Google's transgression here isn't the switch from answers.com, which also sucked, or the desire to offer a dictionary that it controls. It's not even the elevation of a two-bit, third-rate dictionary for foreigners learning English to the position of being the most influential and powerful language resource in human history.

The problem is opacity and exclusivity. Why the secrecy? Why doesn't Google reveal its source for the main definitions? Why doesn't it provide a key for understanding cryptic symbols and abbreviations? Why doesn't it at least link to real, high-quality dictionaries crafted for the purpose of fully understanding words?

Google Dictionary is automatically authoritative, simply because it's on Google. These definitions, for example, will be where the vast majority of students in English-speaking countries get their word definitions. A dictionary designed very specifically for one purpose -- for educating ESL students -- will be used by untold millions for an entirely different purpose: For understanding their own language.

There's no way around it. Google Dictionary represents a colossal dumbing down of the English Language (and presumably others). We all shouldn't rely on it for our everyday understanding of the English language, but we will.

Well, most of us will. I'll be using the Oxford English Dictionary -- if I can ever get the damned thing installed.

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Tags: Google, search, software, media, international

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