Is the print dictionary losing meaning?


Sales of print dictionaries are dipping fast in the digital age

Manoj Sharma

Vivek Mathur, a freelance copywriter, was quite dejected after deciding to ditch, after a decade, his print dictionary in favour of dictionary apps on his mobile phone. “Until six months ago, I always kept one in my bag, even though I was looking up words on my mobile phone. I think I was carrying a print dictionary more for sentimental reasons than anything else,” the 31-year-old says. “Print dictionaries have lost their meaning in this digital age.”

Mathur is not far off the mark—bookshop owners and publishers say dictionary sales have been declining in the past few years. “Until about five years ago, we used to sell 100 dictionaries a month on an average; now I hardly sell two in a month. I have had to consign most dictionaries to our extra stock section. The few dictionaries I sell are bilingual, bought mostly by foreigners learning Hindi,” says Abhinav Bhami, who runs Faqir Chand & Sons, a bookstore in Khan Market.

“Even though the sale of our English dictionaries has declined over the last five years, we have seen steady growth in the digital versions of our dictionaries,” an Oxford University Press (OUP) India spokesperson says.

The English print dictionaries, once considered the ultimate guide that contained everything worth knowing and took pride of place in bookshelves, seem to be fast losing their relevance in this digital age when most people prefer referring to multifunctional, interactive online dictionaries that quickly deliver a wealth of information about any word.

“Online dictionaries have made it so easy to look up a word’s meaning and usage on the go. It is not easy to go look for a print dictionary every time you come across a new word. The Internet has revolutionised the concept of referring to a dictionary through audio and visuals,” says head, Linguistic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, Niladari Dash. “Tomorrow’s knowledge system is going to be completely digital, with the online dictionary as its most trusted pillar.”

Online dictionaries, Dash adds, will revolutionise lexicography, changing how dictionaries are compiled and presented, creating many more jobs in the field. “There is going to be more customisation, with people being able to create online dictionaries according to their needs,” says Dash, who specialises in corpus linguistics and language technology.

Many believe that online dictionaries have made learning spoken English easier than ever before. “I never understood a print dictionary’s pronunciation system comprising complicated symbols. There is no better way to learn how to pronounce a word than to hear someone speak it. Online dictionaries are living and breathing entities that speak to you, and a boon for learners of the language who belong to small towns and are from a Hindi-medium background,” says Mukesh Thapak, 44, from Agra.

While schools have driven most print dictionary sales over the years, many are now doing away with them from children’s schoolbags. DPS Faridabad, for example, no longer prescribes dictionaries for Class 6 onwards. “Today, language is changing fast and print dictionaries, which are updated once in several years, cannot keep up. Besides, the whole process of consulting a physical dictionary takes time,” says principal, DPS Faridabad, Anil Kumar. The school has introduced tablet-learning in many classes. “It makes no sense to encourage children to consult print dictionaries when Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become part of the syllabus, and children are learning how to code at a very young age. All learning is going to be digital in the future, and we need to prepare our students for that,” Kumar adds.

No wonder the OUP is now marketing the recently released 10th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD)’s app as a complete learning tool rather than just a reference source. The new app has audio lesson plans, video walkthroughs and features such as iSpeaker (to help learners prepare for speaking exams and presentations) and iWriter (learners can plan and write, and review their written work).

Many believe that the print dictionaries’ importance goes beyond learning a language, as they represent the social-political-cultural context of the times we live in.

For example, recently, the OUP announced ‘Samvidhaan’ as the Oxford Hindi Word of the Year for 2019 after it received widespread attention last year with the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A). The OUP said that the word was chosen as 2019 saw the values of democracy, secularism, justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity being tested on the touchstone of the Constitution or ‘Samvidhaan’. Similarly, the Collins English Dictionary, in its 12th edition published in 2014, included words such as ‘bitcoin’, ‘click fraud’ and ‘vape’ that represented the changing times.

In 2018, the OUP had announced ‘Aadhaar’ as the Hindi Word of the Year for 2017—and the 10th edition of the OALD released last month includes ‘Aadhaar’ as a new entry in both


Some still swear by print dictionaries, citing their many benefits—no irrelevant pop-ups, no advertisements, and no cookies.

“Print dictionaries are the repositories of our culture and history. A print dictionary has authority, authenticity, and value that a digital dictionary cannot match. I bought my first Oxford English dictionary in 1992 and still have that. I cannot imagine any scholarly or academic pursuit without a print dictionary,” says Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “I think dictionaries, especially bilingual ones, will retain their relevance; there are many who learn English through English to Hindi dictionaries. This is how I also learned English,” he adds.

“Looking up a word in a dictionary involves a lot of brain exercise, and promotes serendipity—making interesting discoveries of new words by accident. This helps increase your vocabulary by a few words. I have learned many new words just going through a dictionary,” Aditya Sharma, a children’s author, says. “I grew up in the 90s, and dictionary salesmen would often visit our schools with new editions. Even today, I keep a dictionary on my writing desk; a dictionary in front of me enables the act of writing in ways I cannot explain. It is like a guide that helps me when I get lost in the English language’s maze of tricky compound nouns, plurals, adverb phrases, and latent letters.”

But Sharma feels that print dictionaries need to be updated more frequently. Currently, a new edition of a print dictionary is released approximately once in five years, while most online dictionaries upload new words and revised entries every three months. These periodic uploads are called ‘releases’, rather than ‘editions’. A new edition involves reconsidering every definition, deleting or revising outdated information, and adding new words. The first four editions of the OALD were published between 1948 and 1989 (41 years) and the next five between 1995 and 2020 (25 years), accelerating the update cycle in an attempt to ensure up-to-date lexical content.

While Aditya Sharma believes that print dictionaries have created signposts of language development and should not be allowed to die, Dash has a different take on the future of dictionaries.

“The dictionary should be brought out only for archival purposes,” he says.                   

                                                     (HT Media)