In Praise of Dictionaries


When I was a child, we are talking the 1960s here, we had a huge red dictionary. It was housed in the very sturdy card box it had been delivered in and had a deeply embossed cover. Each letter of the alphabet had its own tag so it was easy to find the starter letter of a word. This dictionary was consulted when we were not sure of a word. To along with it we always had the yearly edition of the Pears Cyclopaedia so we could check facts as well. When we went to school we acquired other, smaller and more up-to-date, dictionaries to help with our spellings. I do not regard it as being shameful to look up words.

For the past decade, I have been teaching English to native and non-native students in adult education institutes and rarely do I see students with a dictionary. Sometimes, students will look up words on Google if they have a smart phone but they do not use an online dictionary. In fact, I have often encountered students who do not have the basic skills to look a word up in a dictionary. They do not know the alphabet, cannot work out that they may have to consider not just the first letter of a word but second or third letters also. There is little grasp of the components of the dictionary entry such as headword, pronunciation guide, grammatical element, definition or sample usage. In exams, students often copy down the entire entry rather than the definition of the word. Without vital skills such as looking up spellings or meanings then people cannot improve their reading or writing skills, in my opinion.

The advent of online dictionaries and spell-checkers has not helped the spelling situation. In order to make use of these aids the user needs to have some grasp of the alphabet and phonics of a language. Predicted text does not help the writer if the writer does not know the meanings of the words or how to spell them in the first place. It is the same with spellcheckers. If you have no idea what the word you are trying to write looks like then how can you choose the correct version from the proffered menu?

The event which has lead to these musing is an advertising board for a Cockney food hall in East London (see below). In addition to the Grocer’s Apostrophe and confused use of capitalisation, we have several affronts to the spelling of English.

Cockney Food Offering

Cockney Food Offering

To be honest, if the staff are unable to spell the names of the dishes is there any guarantee that they can read the recipe to prepare them?

I know that in the UK it is the fashion to blame poor parenting skills and “trendy” teaching methods but surely the individual who cannot spell common words shares some responsibility for their own illiteracy.  One can only hope, that new Minister for Education in the Cameron Government brings back the rigorous teaching of English language skills in the nation’s schools.