Dictionary Phobias in the Digital Age

Fear of Long Words

Reading in the Digital Age

—Have you heard the argument that most readers want easy reading, which doesn’t frequently send them to the dictionary? This is the subject of much heated debate, which isn’t the focus of this article (though I would say different authors have different styles and different audiences—if there is a significant audience for a style that you can write, it would make sense for you to write to that audience). Put your opinion on whether or not we should make reading vocabulary friendly aside for a moment. As I mentioned, I didn’t bring this up with intention of stirring that debate. I want to just call attention to the fact that there is a dictionary phobia in the Digital Age. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that there is one? Technology should be making it easier to deal with and improve vocabulary. If so, why are many people still afraid of encountering words they might not know? Here is my point:

  • I just opened a book on my Kindle Fire.
  • I encountered a word I didn’t know.
  • I touched the word with my finger until it was highlighted in blue.
  • A window popped up showing me the pronunciation key and definition.

Back when I was a kid (and we had to walk uphill both ways—if you want to enjoy a little humor, look for my ‘proof’ of this toward the end of this article—into the wind, too!)… …There was a mammoth unabridged dictionary sitting on its own table in every classroom. If a student asked a teacher what a word meant, said student would soon be standing at that table thumbing through said dictionary. …Sometimes, we’d be reading on the bus, with no dictionary in sight. Now it’s so easy. If you’re reading a digital book, all you need to do is touch the word. It’s almost like having a magic genie, except it’s a hundred times easier to press the word than it would be to rub the lamp and make a wish (and then you only get three wishes and each wish has unintended side effects).

When it’s so easy to look up a word, why are so many people afraid of seeing words they didn’t already know?

I think it’s a good question. There are probably some answers. That is, some reasons. I really mean, some ways to explain why it is the way it is. But maybe that isn’t the way it should be. Reading is a great way to develop better grammar, improve your vocabulary, and improve your writing. Now it’s so easy to look up any word you don’t already know. Okay, let me address the obvious exception:

  • If you have to look up every other word, even pressing the word in an e-book will become a chore and detract from story enjoyment. My question relates to occasional words, not this extreme.

Proof that we had it harder when I was a kid

So, I said, albeit in jest, that we had to walk to school and it was uphill both ways. I’m sure you ‘know’ that can’t be true, so I’m going to apply my knowledge of physics to prove you wrong. Here’s the deal. As illustrated below, the school was located on the side of a mountain. The school was very tall. The town was situated halfway up the mountain. First period was at the top of the school, so we had to walk up to get to the top of the school. Last period was at the bottom of the school, so we again walked up to get back home in town. QED.

Uphill Battle


Isn’t that a great word? You gotta love it!

How do you pronounce hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia? What does hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia mean? Forgive me for my repetition, but any chance to use hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia in a sentence just can’t be squandered.🙂

  • Hip·po·po·to·mon·stro·ses·quip·e·da·li·o·pho·bi·a (Hip’-uh-paw-tuh-mahn-stroe’-ses-kwip’-uh-dah-lee-owe-foe’-bee-ah) n. (hippopoto– Greek-derived for fear, –mostr– Latin for monstrous, –sesquipedali– Latin for long word, and –phobos Greek for fear)—fear of long words.

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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15 comments on “Dictionary Phobias in the Digital Age

  1. Excellent post. Our author is young but loves to use big vocabulary words for one of her characters. She’s been told it is too hard for young readers (keep in mind she was 9 when she wrote her first book). She added a chapter about dictionaries in her second book (almost done editing) – just to point out that people can actually use them. I find it hysterical that adults complain about the vocabulary in my daughter’s writing – well, look it up, for heaven’s sake! Tweeting this.
    ~Cool Mom for the Stanley & Katrina Gang

  2. Excellent post. I love words, long and short. Love to look them up, play with them, spin them round, up and down. I’ll never stop using the dictionary. Guess, I’m ‘old,’ because I so love the feel of all those bound pages in my big blue book. 🙂

  3. I love a good, evocative word – but I really don’t like wordy, pompous ramblings that are crafted just to show off your linguistic abilities. Saying that – I don’t think that writers should be dumbing down their work! I think it’s a matter of writing according to your voice, not in a self-conscious way. If you know what I mean!

    • True, it works both ways. Better to choose the word that fits best, than to write with a much restricted vocabulary—and restricting oneself to just the hard words is just as restrictive as using only the easy ones.

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