What's Wrong With Google Dictionary?

Google Dictionary represents a colossal dumbing down of the English Language.


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Posted December 9, 2009

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

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My birthday was December 3rd. One of my gifts this year was the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM. (CD-ROM technology is dated, but it's by far the cheapest way to own the best dictionary in the world.) I'm having problems installing the software, which choked on the installation. Tech support said my problem is a well-known error, and to just keep installing it until it works. Sigh!

On that same day, Google gave the world a lesser gift: Google Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM and Google Dictionary are in fact opposites. One is clunky, barely functional, overly complex software that provides incredibly great content, and the other is sleek, fast and advanced software that serves up junk content.

The media reported the news with the kind of passivity and acquiescence we've come to expect, applauding Google for rolling out a dictionary that's "fast," and has "cool features."

Journalists are supposed to be skeptical wordsmiths, but the reporting on Google Dictionary unmasked most of them for what they really are: corporate shills. Reporters expressed huge concern over the fate of online dictionary competitors, and no concern over the fate of the English language.

What Is Google Dictionary?

Google search gets hundreds of millions of search queries each day. Most single-word searches on Google offer a "definition" link prominently on the top right of the results page. Click on the link, and you get a dictionary entry for the word.

Until last week, the link took you to an entry provided by Answers.com. Now it takes you to a new service called Google Dictionary.

The dictionary provides definitions, parts of speech, pronunciation and synonyms. It also shows phrases that use the word, followed by what Google calls "Web definitions," which come from the Wikipedia and other online sources.

The Google Dictionary service used to be called Google Translate. It offers dictionaries and translation features for 28 languages: from English to French to German to Chinese to Hindi to Kannada and so on. (Presumably Kannada is what they speak in Canada.)

As a Web app, Google Dictionary is truly great. It's fast, clean, functional, and well linked to relevant pages both within the service and outside of it. It retains your recent searches in a list.

What's Wrong With Google Dictionary?

Unlike real dictionaries, which are transparent to a fault, Google Dictionary hides important information from the user. For example, Google Dictionary provides a main list of definitions. Where do they come from? How were they created, by whom and with what process?

Since Google won't tell you, I'll try to.

Google appears to get most or all its definitions from Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary, as well as synonyms, antonyms, and pronunciations.

Have you ever even heard of Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary? I hadn't. Those of us who grew up speaking English as our primary language would never have any reason to. A learner's dictionary is specifically designed for foreign-language speakers learning English. It's an ESL (English as a Second Language) reference tool.

The difference between a learner's dictionary and one written for native speakers is clearly detailed in the Wikipedia entry for "Advanced Learner's Dictionary":

"A learner's dictionary is intended for non-native speakers who want information about the meaning and usage of words and phrases. Such dictionaries focus on current meanings, omitting outdated uses; etymology, a staple of standard dictionaries, is also usually omitted. All headwords are explained in uncomplicated language, typically using a core defining vocabulary of some 3,000 words, thus making the definitions more digestible to learners. There are many example phrases and sentences, but no quotations."

Just like that: Gone are outdated uses, etymology and quotations, which to me are the best ways to understand the nuanced differences between similar words, and to truly understand the full context of words.

In fact, it's precisely these historical components of words that make the great dictionaries so great. The Oxford English Dictionary isn't the best English language dictionary because of its primary definitions and pronunciations, but because of its "outdated uses," etymology and quotations -- which are unparalleled.

What's happening is that the Collins COBUILD Learner’s Dictionary, designed for foreign language speakers, has been elevated to a vastly higher profile than, say, the Oxford English, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster, dictionaries.

The word "COBUILD" in the dictionary's title stands for "Collins Birmingham University International Language Database." That means definitions are largely computer-generated, or at least that the crafting of definitions were computer-assisted, and taken from a wide variety of TV shows, newspapers, books and other sources. That makes me suspect that Google may want to take over the project and develop techniques for automating the process of gleaning definitions from popular culture.

Next Page: It's not even the best learner's dictionary....

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Tags: Google, search, software, media, international

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