The Dictionary Market: Getting Your Words' Worth
Scores of our generation's most celebrated authors have famously waxed poetic about the joys of using the original 20-volume "Oxford English Dictionary." David Foster Wallace, for instance, had a well-documented obsession with the OED. Simon Winchester wrote not one, but two nonfiction books about the dictionary's history. Even J.R.R. Tolkien, who briefly worked on the OED (he was assigned to the letter "W"), spoke fondly of his time there.
But the simple fact is this: When I need to know the correct spelling of, say, "onomatopoeia," or "conscientious" or "hierarchy," there's a decent chance I'll be heading straight to Dictionary.com. Or to be a bit more specific: I'll type the word into my web browser and, after tapping my 'Enter' key, I'll almost certainly be taken straight to Dictionary.com. If you've ever used Google to look up a word, you know exactly what I'm talking about. According to Lisa Sullivan-Cross, Dictionary.com's vice president of marketing and general manager of learning, the site services more than 50 million users each month, and its mobile apps have now been downloaded an astonishing 25 million times.
After all, as John Morse, the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc., is fond of saying, people today tend to be "undiscerning" in their use of dictionaries. Casual online word-searchers today, he says, are beholden to "the tyranny of Google."
Dictionary.com, as Morse points out, is indeed a powerful force in the world of professional lexicography. "You know," he says, "I think they were greatly helped by their name, particularly during that period when "dictionary" was one of the most-used terms on the web. ("Can you think of one other industry where this holds true?" asks Sullivan-Cross in response to Morse's comment. "Is shoes.com the No. 1 seller of shoes?")
"The dictionary business," Morse says with a sigh,"has always been really competitive. [Merriam-Webster has] been up against the biggest multinational dictionaries in the world. We're [used] to being in a competitive environment."
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.