This book is primarily a fascinating and insightful examination of some of the key issues facing lexicography and dictionary publishing today. Unfortunately, at times it is a frustratingly academic disquisition that wanders off into epistemological debates that seem to bear little relevance to the practice of commercial lexicography. [In the interests of full disclosure I must admit to being one of the dwindling few practitioners of commercial lexicography. I am responsible for ELT dictionary publishing at Cambridge University Press, which is an academic publisher but is nonetheless subject to almost all the pressures and constraints strictly commercial publishers face.]
Discussions of Theoretical Lexicography never fail to put me in mind of The Intuitionist, a novel by Colson Whitehead that centers on a battle between Empiricist elevator inspectors, who rely on checking elevators physically to ensure they are in good order, and Intuitionist inspectors, who use something akin to telepathic empathy to determine if an elevator is safe. So when Theoretical Lexicography is brought into play early on in this volume, I envision its counterpart as being Practical Lexicography, and find myself allied very strongly with the nuts-and-bolts camp. But this cavil is probably more revealing of my disinterest in academic theory than of any genuine shortcomings of this book.
The value of this volume lies in its contributors’ efforts to explore ways in which e-lexicography can develop good information tools. The editors, in their introduction, suggest that such a tool “should be easy to use, easy to learn to use and be able to provide a result in a short span of time.” This notion is further elaborated in later chapters—it is not enough to provide a result in a short span of time, it should be the right result, tailored to the person and search at hand. As Bergenholtz and Bergenholtz put it in the conclusion of their chapter, “A Dictionary is a Tool, a Good Dictionary is a Monofunctional Tool,” “…if you really want to make tools for different purposes, you must make search possibilities and data presentation possibilities for different needs, for example, for [End Page 241] a reception problem you need data about the meaning—and nothing else. In the end, you can produce many, hundreds or thousands of different monofunctional tools outgoing from the same database by using different search and presentation possibilities.”
Nielsen and Almind, in their chapter “From Data to Dictionary,” similarly suggest that “[u]sers who want to know how to use a specific term or phrase in a text-production situation are presented with data that are different from the data presented to users who want to know what that particular term means in accounting texts.” The problem in doing this, however, is that users want a tool that is easy to use and easy to learn to use. And as Heid shows in his illuminating chapter, “Electronic Dictionaries as Tools: Toward an Assessment of Usability,” the specific information a user wants can be almost impossible to find if the interface is overly complex, which appears to be the case in his test of the Base lexicale du français in which “only 10 per cent of the students managed to get access to the intended data. One of the reasons for this is that the subjects did not manage to correctly manipulate the search window for multiword, which consists of two parts.” It’s not enough to have the information in your data set; you also have to make it easily discoverable.
Robert Lew, in his useful chapter, “Online Dictionaries of English,” reviews the merits and demerits of a broad range of online English dictionaries, and helpfully categorizes different types of offerings. (Because it’s been more than three years between the time these chapters were authored and the date this review is written, a few of his specific comments are no longer accurate, but the gist of his overview is still excellent.) Toward the end of...