Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 15 • July 2007

Future of lexicography

Barbara Kipfer


Barbara Kipfer is editorial director of Lexico Publishing Group, owner of



Often people ask about the future of dictionaries. Most people asking this question seem to think that online or electronic dictionaries have supplanted print dictionaries. That does not seem to be true after 10+ years of the Internet, as dictionary companies report that sales of print dictionaries have not declined. Print dictionaries, despite the fact that they cannot hold spacewise or even featurewise what online and electronic dictionaries can, are not going away anytime soon. Many who uses a laptop and the Web in the afternoon use a print dictionary in the evening.


However, the dictionaries available online or electronically will also follow the new phenomenon of what is the wave of the future, namely, adding new words and definitions more quickly, offering many more scientific and technical terms, and offering a view on new words and usages before they are included in print dictionaries. The computer has not only made it possible to offer dictionaries in electronic and online form, but has also made the updating and printing of traditional dictionaries easier and less costly.


It is hard to speculate about the Internet of the future. In the Internet’s short lifetime, dictionaries have gone from being offered by subscription to being offered for free, then to being offered for free, by subscription, and with a lot of advertising bordering them. The Internet model of making money almost strictly through advertising might not hold up forever and those who offer such products will have to find other ways to support publishing dictionaries for free. Those who offer subscriptions also have print dictionaries for sale (e.g. Merriam-Webster and Oxford University Press) and they will likely continue with that model. But those who offer dictionaries for free and are supported by advertising revenue might have to seek other ways to subsidize their business.


Libraries are full of books because that is the way we have conveyed knowledge and expressed literary creativity for centuries. We have widened our concept of library to include the Internet and different ways of storing knowledge electronically. Modern technology encourages new lexicographic creation. A field that was once held to the restrictions of print now has a wide-open palette.


Looking far into the future, one can envision a time when an international body will be formed to coordinate the lexicography of the world. Language in general will likely become more and more globalized as time goes by. By coordinating international lexicography, solutions may be found to problems which have always seemed to be beyond solution, for example, a great deal of technical terminology may indeed become global and serve as a bridge that unites people across all languages and cultures.