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Not Your Grandma's Online Dictionary

A huge new resource that (finally) improves on Webster and Wiktionary Dictionaries have been struggling in recent years. In print, they often...

A huge new resource that (finally) improves on Webster and Wiktionary

Dictionaries have been struggling in recent years. In print, they often seem like stuffy mausoleums where words go to die. Online dictionaries tend to go in the opposite direction: Many are swimming in so much unregulated user-generated sewage that they are about as reliable as bathroom graffiti, with a similar tone to boot.That may finally change. A new online dictionary called Wordnik just debuted, and this huge new resource, (under the direction of dictionary heavyweights Grant Barrett and Erin McKean) combines the steady editorial hand of a traditional dictionary with the user-supplied chaos of the web.Wordnik not only pulls definitions from several major dictionaries, but it paints a picture of a word metaphorically through recent Twitter uses and literally through Flickr images. It's all in service of an ambitious mission statement: "Our goal is to show you as much information as possible, just as fast as we can find it, for every word in English, and to give you a place where you can make your own opinions about words known."(Bonus: With over 1.7 million words, Wordnik offers an implicit counterargument to silly pseudo-research that claims the English language has just reached 1 million words).


Besides the definitions and social media data, Wordnik provides synonyms; antonyms; audio files to demonstrate pronunciation; and statistics on frequency of use, culled from their 4 billion-word corpus of periodicals, books, web pages, and other sources. It all adds up to far more information than a traditional dictionary, serving readers a generous helping of context, which is critical to understanding a word. As Barrett says, "Context is how we learn most words in any given day, not from a dictionary definition."But could all this context result in buckets of crap, a la the unverified, untrustworthy offerings of Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia? I asked McKean, who is also the editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, about how they hope to maintain a balance between order and chaos. "We're providing very directed ways to contribute," she said. "Record a pronunciation, add a tag, connect a related word or synonym-we do have space for free-form contributions (notes), too, but we won't be promoting the notes to the summary (front) page of the word unless we think they're really helpful."It turns out the best contributions of the masses are unknowing, and therefore more useful. "A lot of the user-generated stuff is unconscious-blog posts, twitter-people are creating great context for understanding words without even being aware of it, which makes for less-biased or less self-conscious information," McKean said.Barrett-editor of Double-tongued Dictionary-echoed this point: "We're on the lookout for unconscious input more than conscious input, the latter being what Wikipedia is more about. Unconscious input takes the shape of texts that people have written as part of their work, education, or personal lives. The lexical information contained in such texts is more valuable than intentional definitions or explanations. It tends to more accurately demonstrate how a word is really used, versus how people believe it is used." It's not that you and I aren't rich sources of evidence about the living language. It's just that what we do with language is a lot more credible than what we think about it.The philosophy of Wordnik is refreshingly, forcefully descriptivist, meaning it is rooted in the way people actually use language, as opposed to the prescriptivist position, which tends to feel that language change, new words, and eggcorns are like lowlife criminals roughing up the language. As a rule, linguists and lexicographers-the people who study language and make dictionaries, respectively-embrace the more scientific descriptivist position, but prescriptivism is popular, as the popularity of Eats, Shoots & Leaves attests. I suggested to McKean that Wordnik could be a nuclear bomb in the war between descriptivists and prescriptivists, but she resisted my overblown rhetoric, saying: "I think we've managed to come to a detente with the prescriptivists. I do hope that Wordnik makes people feel more confident in their word use-that would be a huge win, for everyone."By giving such a fresh, real, immediate look at how a word is being used, Wordnik may help educate people on some long-held truths of dictionary-makers that are sometimes a little counterintuitive to the masses: namely, that's it's those masses, unwashed or lemon-scented, who make and remake the language. All of us-from the President to my mom to millions of bloggers, tweeters, and whatever-is-next-ers-are the authors of English, and we now have a new way to enjoy our ongoing collaboration. A huge win, indeed.
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