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Difference Maker

New online dictionary redefines 'look it up'

Lexicographer Erin McKean’s interactive ‘Wordnik’ is projected to be the largest online dictionary ever.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / March 16, 2009

Infinite dictionary: Erin McKean, former editor in chief of US Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, has created Wordnik, expanding the meaning and uses of a dictionary.

Jasmine Scott/Special to The Christian Science Monitor



Erin McKean doesn’t look much like a revolutionary. She speaks softly. She sews her own skirts and writes a daily blog entry about vintage patterns. She does work out of a basement, but it’s got carpeting and good lighting and roughly 1,500 books, many of whose titles involve the word “words.” Her suburban Chicago home is not exactly the picture of subversion.

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This week, though, she is slated to launch what may be the biggest revolution in the printed word since, well, printed words.

Ms. McKean’s brainchild is called Wordnik, and it combines the best practices of the old-fashioned desk reference with Internet innovations. Words can be tagged like a blog entry, their pronunciation recorded and replayed like streaming radio, their related words cataloged like a list of books customers also bought at an online book depot. When the paper page gives way to the Web page, everything about the way we think of words will change, McKean says. “This project,” she predicts in a quiet voice devoid of bravado, “is going to completely revolutionize all of dictionarymaking forever.”

Granted, a dictionary is closer to a database than a mystery thriller, its authors nothing like, say, John Grisham. But to McKean, nothing has ever seemed more fascinating than collecting and organizing American words.

McKean was 8 years old when she decided that when she grew up, she wanted to be a lexicographer – the technical term for a writer or editor of dictionaries. She first found it in her daily scouring of The Wall Street Journal. Her father was a Journal devotee, and McKean liked the human interest stories (but, she jokes, “even then, I knew enough not to read the editorial page.”) A feature article celebrated Oxford University Press’s 1980 Word of the Year – ayatollah – and talked about preparing the newest edition of its most famous title, the Oxford English Dictionary.

“I think I was really attracted by the fact that it was taking 21 years to make the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary,” she recalls. “I was 8. Twenty-one years was forever.”

The lexicography bug stuck, in part because McKean loved language. She was a voracious reader, plowing through her local libraries’ stacks and devouring anything she found at home, she says. “If it was lying around, I read it. If my parents didn’t want me to read it,” she says, “they had to hide it.”

As her classmates abandoned childhood dreams of firefighting or Broadway stardom for teaching or nursing, McKean stuck with words. “Nobody ever tried to talk me out of it. Nobody knew enough about it to know if it was easy or difficult,” she recalls. “Nobody had a brother who was a lexicographer the way they might have a brother who was a firefighter or an English teacher or a doctor or a lawyer. Nobody had ever met one.”