Beware the Machine-Compiled Dictionary

Posted on February 1, 2016

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Yes, I am talking about YOU, Dictionary.com!

Language is a tricky thing.  Some years ago, I stood in a bookstore alongside my Russian friend.  We spotted some pretty well-respected brand-name dictionaries of slang and idioms for the Russian language.  As a student of the language, I was immediately interested.  I pulled on off the shelf, opened it to a random page, and read him the idiom in Russian.  “What does THAT mean?” he asked.  “Well, in English, it means this,” I said, showing him the translation.  “It doesn’t mean that!” he said.  “Well, what DOES it mean?”  “I don’t know!”   Okay.  Let’s try the other one.  I opened the book, read another idiom, and got this response:  “I don’t know WHAT that’s supposed to mean.”

Lesson learned:  don’t waste your money on dictionaries of slang and idioms.  And these were really high-quality books put together by actual human beings.

Now, what do we suppose happens with machines?  Machine translations are notoriously inaccurate and often hilarious.  So is it really any surprise that a machine-compiled English-language dictionary would be a little… off?

Enter Lila’s secret guilty pleasure, the Words With Friends online game.  For anyone unfamiliar with it, it’s basically a Scrabble knockoff that you can play with your friends near and far, via Facebook or on an iPad or such.  I like it because you can have multiple games running at once, pull it up at your convenience, make a move or two, then toss it on the nightstand until tomorrow.  But… oh, the dictionary!

There is a dictionary display which shows the last word played, and helpfully gives a definition and usually, a sample of the word in a sentence.  I have noticed lately that the sentences sometimes bear no resemblance to the definition, and have concluded that they are simply plucked from somewhere on the Internet by running a search algorithm.  This could be a lesson to those of us who search the Internet for information, but then inexplicably gravitate to tinfoil-hat websites and soon find themselves convinced that the moon landing never occurred, or that vaccinations cause autism.  The Internet is full of useful information, and it is full of utter crap.  As a human being, you should be able to apply critical thinking to tell the difference.  Machines, however, are stuck with whatever they find, giving us the following gems of nonsensical ignorance:

 

Morse Code, or Mark Twain’s rendering of dialect for Huckleberry Finn?

Morse Code, or Mark Twain's rendering of dialect for Huckleberry Finn?

Time, or distance?  Hmmm.

WWF-2

Plant, or poorly spelled animal?  (Apologies to Josh Billings, I know you wrote it that way on purpose).

WWF-4

 

Chinese, or French?

WWF-5

A tool, or a Chinese secret society?

WWF-6

And finally… this is just wrong. We all know what a doxy is. If you don’t know, look it up in a real dictionary. It’s NOT a religious doctrine.

WWF-7

Enough confusion for today!  I just hope that in today’s interconnected, keyboard-bound world — where kids are not even learning cursive any more — that THIS is not where they are getting their education in the English language.

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