Can we crowdsource a dictionary?

Several online dictionaries use crowd-sourcing, whereby the common mass of proletarians can create a collective work without being paid. This article examines one dictionary where this system works (Wiktionary), and another where it doesn't (dict.cc).


Dictionaries are very much the "holy bibles" of we Correct Linguisticians. In the offices of the OED, Merriam-Webster and Herr Duden alike, inspired authors known as dictionariers think of words so that we don't have to. However, thanks to the internet, there now exist online dictionaries ("wordbooks" in Anglish), which are compiled entirely from the speech of normal people, instead of educated people!      I suppose it was inevitable that such projects would arise in this age of technophilia and -phobia, but it is at least to be hoped that the new styles of dictionaries will retain the good qualities of the old. Etymological information, for example: how else may I make sure to use Latinate words instead of Saxon ones? (The grammarian HW Fowler, a.k.a. The King, decreed that I must do this, it cannot be changed)

Online dictionaries are able more quickly to react to new words and phrases, and add new definitions. But this flexibility comes at a price, if the proper rules of fact-checking are not obeyed. Even worse, undesirable words such as slang get into online dictionaries – why, I cannot understand, as these words were not good enough for the printed dictionary. (Having said that, the best dictionary of them all, the 20-volume Oxford OED, does include slang. That's why I won't buy it.)

I won't be focusing as much on Wiktionary; it seems good, it can probably be improved, but I've had a very worrying experience with dict.cc that I must share with you! (yes, apparently I'm turning into the Web-Mister in real life as well.)
I'll be listing the shortcomings that I've noticed, which online dictionaries may want to note in order to improve.

Bad command of English
Dict.cc is a German-to-English dictionary, with other languages in separate sections. Wiktionary is arguably more ambitious, seeking to translate all words from all languages. What unites the websites' users is their shoddy and arrogant command of English! Why was I not invited to these dictionaries, to contribute archaisms and neologisms (and everything in-between!)?

Hierarchy and competitiveness
Dict.cc's problems start on the homepage. Beside the recently-added words, there's a list of the 10 most regular contributors. There wouldn't be something as crass as that on Wiktionary, or Wikipedia, where the focus is on information, not "who edits the most". Dict.cc assigns points for each translation a user performs, and extra power, but this encourages users to cut corners, and can lead to cock-ups.

Inability to correct cock-ups
Let's see what happens when the fool-proof system fails. Dict.cc currently recommends the following phrases to German learners of English:
"None of your monkey business!" (a mixed metaph***-up)
"All of them with itchy trigger finger." (a misquote from Die Hard 3)
"Life is not all guns and roses" (listed five times*)

Suggesting improvements is easy (you can do it here). Dict.cc markets itself as being universal, like Wikipedia, but there's no such high-mindedness on the site. If you're an unregistered user, your translation will probably get one of the following reactions from the established users:

1) Rejected, no response. Because dict.cc, that trusted source, can't be wrong, you must be wrong. Like when Bernard Lamb quotes himself to prove that saying "gonna" is an STD.
2) Rejected unconvincingly using Reverso, Mr Honey's Business Dictionary, or Google, plus the power of 10,000 dict.cc points, which make you immortal and infallible. It's called "selective descriptivism", or more accurately "prescriptivism".
3) Rejected due to a misunderstanding. This happens quite often, despite the top users claiming that their English and German are equally great. Five stars! Why not make it six?
4) Rejected because they don't like anonymous edits. To which the obvious reply is, "why are they allowed?"
And the other obvious reply: you're all anonymous! Dict.cc's top contributor of all time is Translatosaurus from southern Germany, who has "no accent". Yep, you heard her. Or rather you didn't, as she has no accent and doesn't talk.

These rejections would not be allowed on Wiktionary, which has pages titled "Assume good faith" and "Interacting with humans".

One translation per entry
Dict.cc has design flaws as well. The site's rule of "one translation per entry" is not followed by the best dictionaries. Languages are nuanced – sometimes words have two meanings or need further explanation. There's little room for that on dict.cc. For a German who uses the phrase fast liver (person who lives a fast life), it might be nice to mention that "liver" has a more common meaning, but dict.cc doesn't do this.
Each entry has a discussion page, but the discussion is restricted to the rightmost column and isn't immediately visible. Users can write a few sentences each, which sometimes isn't enough, and is bad for debate. Usually, soundbites and experienced users win the day.

Verification
Experienced dict.cc users have the power to "verify" translations, a term that loses its meaning if it isn't 100% reliable. Wiktionary has "administrators", who are elected on how well they edit the site, not how much. Some dict.cc users seem defensive about "their" dictionary, as you see when they reject outsiders' translations. Dict.cc is aimed mainly at Germans needing English translations, often for work or school, so it's important stuff. The power-users know this, but they don't accept that they aren't all-knowledgeable. Despite this, dict.cc is accurate most of the time, but, having seen behind the scenes, I won't be able to trust it until it stops the clique-sourcing.

So, does crowdsourcing work? My lazy answer is "naaaah". Not yet. User-generated dictionaries have newer or rarer vocabulary, so use them in combination with professional ones that people actually pay money for. And ask your teacher, if you have one. Dictionary.com and The Free Dictionary reprint entries from a range of trustworthy sources. In Germany, Duden is almost more venerated than the Bible; Beolingus is a compromise between experts and internauts, overall about as useful as dict.cc, but it has "No guarantee of accuracy or completeness!", which is sensible.
Are they perfect? Is language ever perfect? No. You know what they say: life is not all guns and roses.

* A note about those funny phrases: they all struggle to get over 100 mentions on Google (don't be fooled by the 80,000 it guesses on page 1; they run out around page 10).
"Life is not all guns and roses" is virtually non-existant outside of dict.cc and mirror sites, but at least a few authors have used the phrase. Not before 1987 (when Guns N' Roses got popular), but "x is not guns and roses" and "x is not all guns and roses" pop up in a couple of books. Next stop, the OED? I hope so. Axl needs the publicity.