Look it up!

by Colin McIntosh​
The British dictionary tradition has differed from the American tradition in various ways, one of which is the treatment of words with a capital letter, like Brazil, Edinburgh, and John F. Kennedy.

British dictionaries traditionally made a distinction between content that was lexical and content that was encyclopedic. Lexical content (words, in other words) was the job of the dictionary, whereas encyclopedic content (countries, cities, dead white men) was the job of the encyclopedia. Nowadays, with the advent of search engines like Google, where all types of information are accessible, people tend not to distinguish between the two, and the internet is simply seen as one huge, amorphous source of information. This obviously has meant a big change in dictionary users’ expectations.

One enormous difference for dictionary makers in the digital age is that we can see what our users are looking up (or searching for, in the new parlance). When Samuel Johnson or James Murray published new dictionaries in past centuries, they had no idea if their users were looking up words they’d added, or if they were looking up words that hadn’t been included. Now we can run regular checks of “words searched for” and “words not found”.

Examining the “words not found”, apart from long lists of wrongly spelled words (accomodation, pronounciation, definately, and liase are some of the most common), it was striking how often users were looking for “encyclopedic” words. Given this valuable knowledge, the editors at Cambridge could have said “But this is a dictionary – we don’t do capital letters!” But instead they decided to give users what they wanted and add encyclopedic content to the Cambridge English Dictionary.

So what encyclopedic information were Cambridge users searching for? Well, interestingly, Cambridge came near the top, possibly because when users want to try out the search, Cambridge is the first word they see. The other place, Oxford, also came out fairly high, for less obvious reasons.

Other cities searched for include cities with “new” names like Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Yangon, perhaps because people have not yet got used to them.

Countries and territories are also frequently looked up, including the newest: South Sudan, Montenegro, and East Timor.

As well as names of places, the adjectives and nouns referring to the people of those places are also frequently looked up. We’ve recently welcomed Aberdonians, Dundonians, Orcadians, Tykes, Cantabrigians, Cariocas, Canucks, and Catalans to the Cambridge English Dictionary.

We have not yet tackled biographical entries; these are less frequently searched for than place names, but Shakespeare (and the eponymous adjective Shakespearean) is one that is regularly searched for, perhaps because of the difficult spelling. Shakespeare famously spelled his name in many different ways, but in the more normative 21st century, just one spelling is considered correct.

Adding encyclopedic content is a lengthy project, and it will take some years before our coverage approaches completeness. But knowing what our users are searching for is a precious tool that will ensure that we give priority to those areas where there is the greatest demand.