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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.

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For good reason, she found out as she pursued joint bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics at the University of Chicago: There aren’t a whole lot of jobs for lexicographers. McKean estimates there may be 200 working lexicographers in America today, and that the field sees about two full-time openings a year.

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McKean got her start through a combination of luck and ingenuity: She called up the only dictionary publisher based in Chicago and asked for an internship. After graduation, the internship turned into a job, which eventually turned into a career at Oxford University Press, a move she likens to “being called up by the Yankees.” At age 29, McKean was the chief editor of the American dictionaries group. “If it had Oxford and American in the title,” she says, “it was my fault.”

She could dream up bestsellers, like the Oxford American Writers Thesaurus, but among her favorite books is the first one she acquired at her new home, a publishing house with a reputation for erudition. “It was called Slayer Slang....[It] is a treatment of the slang of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the title character in a hit television drama from the late 1990s.
The purchase revealed as much about McKean’s sensibility as it did about her business sense. And when it comes to dictionaries, McKean says, sensibility is key. “People have this idea of the Platonic ideal of the dictionary. That’s why they call it ‘the dictionary’.... They think that all dictionaries are pretty much the same.” Not so, she says. There are five print dictionary publishers in the US, each choosing which of the billions of words they’ve collected will make it into print.

What gets left out depends on the personality of the publishing house. On the other hand, how to evaluate what gets in is a task beyond most people. “Most consumers don’t have a good metric for deciding on whether the dictionary they want to use is a good one … so they flip the book over, then go to the back, and it says, ‘over 250,000 entries.’ And they go, ‘Great, this dictionary must be awesome!’ ” she says. “Because if you don’t know a word, how do you judge the quality of the definition?”

Enter Wordnik, McKean’s newest project. In the infinite space of the Internet, she can define as many words as she wants.

“There are hundreds of thousands of words that aren’t in any print dictionary today ... because there’s no space for all of them.”

Wordnik has space for many of them, and for their bells and whistles. Her team of seven has analyzed what print and online dictionaries do and don’t do well. They’ve built a user-friendly resource that should be the best – and biggest – of both worlds. Wordnik generates its content from a database of 4 billion words, twice as many as that of her last employer. “Four billion words,” she says with a shrug, “is what you can pick up lying around on the floor of the Internet.”