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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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Want to evaluate a definition of a word you’ve never met? No problem; other users can tell you if they favor that definition. Want to know what other words often appear in the same sentence as what you’ve just looked up? There’s a section called “related” for words used in the same context as yours. Need to know what a farthingale, for instance, looks like? Images are imported to the page from photo-depot giant Flickr. Unsure if you really understood the definition? Every word has several example sentences, culled at random from that Internet floor and then sorted so the best rise to the top of your search page.

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These, McKean says, are critical. They’ve been vanishing from print dictionaries as publishers try to cram them with more words, but contextual sentences are what make people pick up reference books in the first place. “We think people go to a dictionary to find out what a word means,” she says. Not so. “Most people go to the dictionary because they don’t want to look stupid.”

They don’t want to sound stupid, either, which is why every word has an audio file of its pronunciation. Users can record their own pronunciations, too.

Print dictionaries do have one clear advantage, though: They show more than one word at a time. That makes skimming the print page fun, and McKean has tried to mimic that feeling with a “serendipity” feature, which generates words at random.

Perhaps the most surprising element of McKean’s new dictionary is a frequency graph, which shows how often the word you’ve looked up was used, as a written word, in a year. That can tell you more about history than just the etymological: Take “chad,” for instance. The word’s frequency in 2000 is high – thanks, of course, to that year’s presidential election controversy. But there are signs of heavy usage much earlier. [Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly used the word "entymological" instead of "etymological." A reader pointed this out here. You can read our response here.] 

“We have one text from 1870 that has the word ‘chad’ a lot, because it’s about Jacquard [weaving] looms, which used to be run on punch cards,” McKean explains. “They had the same chad problems as the Florida ballots.”

Ultimately, McKean’s goal is rather humble, when judged against the volume of words that have accumulated in the 400-year history of modern English.

“Ideally my goal is, before I die, to have some information about every word that’s ever been used in print.”
That may be the real revolution: digitizing a bit of data about every word we English speakers have ever put on the old-fashioned page. Byte by byte, the soft-spoken lexicographer will see her revolution through.