When I graduated from high school, one gift I received was the American Heritage College Dictionary. I probably used that book more than any other, judging by its dog-eared pages and split spine. I only disposed of it when I found that some newer words weren’t in it. I replaced it with a newer edition.
But few of my students have a college level dictionary in their homes. Some of the younger ones have a children’s dictionary, but once kids reach middle school, they rely on a cell phone to find the meaning of words—if they bother to look at all.
Is a cell phone dictionary good enough? What if the power goes out? What if the phone goes dead?
The real problem I see among kids relying on online dictionaries is that students rely on the first meaning of a word whether it is correct or irrelevant to the context in which they want to use it. Kids seem to think that all synonyms are equal. So instead of saying “He said,” they write, “He communicated” or he “interjected.”
Students are used to searching for and accepting the quick answer on their cell phones. Smart phones are not instruments meant for thoughtful searches or for research. They can be used for that, of course, but by their nature, they encourage shortcuts, like texting BBF or OMG.
English is a rich language with hundreds of thousands of words, some spanking new like the spelling of “ok” and some archaic like “anon.” The nuances of our language are as unlikely to be discovered on a cell phone dictionary as are the subtleties of spices to be found in a single cookbook.
Yet, from what I see tutoring students from kindergarten through high school, print dictionaries are not being used. They are not yet dinosaurs, but except for people who make their living as wordsmiths or English teachers, they are increasingly collecting dust at Goodwill.
There’s no sense lamenting the passing of print dictionaries any more than the passing of cursive. Survival of the fittest.