When the dictionary gets lost in the crowd, so does meaning
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When the dictionary gets lost in the crowd, so does meaning

When the dictionary gets lost in the crowd, so does meaning

DictionariesWords are cheap. Whoever first said that never tried to put together a dictionary. It’s painstaking, time-consuming work involving teams of highly educated researchers and editors. So it’s no wonder lexicographers have their bifocals all steamed up over crowdsourcing dictionaries.

This summer, the publisher Collins opened up its dictionary to word suggestions “from anyone who wants to be part of the evolution of the English language.” A nice idea, as long as you like words like “amazeballs” and “oojamaflip”—the latter is supposed to mean “a word whose name is temporarily forgotten.” I assume that’s a joke word, one which I’ll try to forget immediately.

Oxford University linguist Deborah Cameron said that what results from Collins’ supposed democratic process “is less a democracy than a tyranny of nutters.” Cameron’s comment prompted another lexicographer, Jonathan Green, to post a diatribe in the Guardian on why dictionaries are not democratic. He argues that “if reference is to remain useful then it cannot become amateur hour.”

Of course, my concern is if the dictionary gets lost in the crowd, where does that leave translators? Dictionaries are our primary tools. We need accurate definitions of words. Already our profession is “under attack” by the use of crowdsourced translators. Now they are going to dilute the dictionary too? It strikes at the very heart of meaning.

Crowdsourcing often appears to be a positive thing. Of course, we want to make more information accessible to more people. It feels freeing to tear down walls of elitism and professionalism. But in the end, if there are no controls, no experts, meaning will be hopelessly obfuscated, creating more confusion and less value for everyone.

For translation, using groups of amateurs often means inconsistency and inaccuracy. For instance, consider how many different cultures speak Spanish. A native speaker from Guatemala will translate very differently than someone from Mexico, Chile, or Peru. And you just need to look at any amateur-based translation to find mistakes. They are often funny:

“Are you aware of the frequent occurrences of the mass naked child events within the country?”

This lovely one was noted by the Journal of Specialised Translation. It’s a fan translated subtitle from the Japanese anime movie Ghost in the Shell. (A more accurate translation is: “You know that there have been mass abductions here involving overseas mafia recently, right?”)

Now I like jokes as much as anyone, but they aren’t funny when they are costly. And translation problems cost money, time, and coherence.

Language by its nature is not tyrannical or democratic, it’s chaotic. Words are cheap: you can throw them around, use them however you want. But that doesn’t mean everyone will understand you. We need the experts: the professional lexicographers and translators to help establish common reference points and promote understanding.

Otherwise everything is just an oojamaflip.