Who Controls the Definition of a Word?

Erin McKean is changing the way dictionaries are created. Which means that Erin McKean is changing the way proper word usage is defined.

In my business model innovations class, we frequently have guest speakers to tell us about their entry into a market. We were fortunate enough last week to have Erin McKean of Wordnik. Erin is one of approximately 145 lexicographers in the country, and she knew that she wanted to work with dictionaries from the time she was 8 years old. To watch her present her new company, Wordnik, is to watch a woman in love with what she does. I highly recommend watching her speak if you ever get a chance.

After Erin spoke at TED, venture funders approached her, wondering how possible it would be to capture all of the words that were used in the English language, rather than simply the small set included in print dictionaries. Regardless of your interest in language or dictionaries, the story is pretty damn fascinating. Print dictionaries capture less than a million words, and it takes years for a word to make it into the collection. Wordnik uses a technology to mine a large corpus of historical text and contemporary writing (including the internet). The algorithm pulls information about words and how they are used, offering immediate context, definitions, and references to "words" that aren't included in the print dictionaries. To date, Wordnik has counted about 4 million words, and about 10 million things that are used like words, far surpassing the capacity of print dictionaries - and it does so automatically and immediately.

An interesting question that arises from Wordnik is the question of who actually defines a word. In Erin's dream world, gone are the days of 4th grade English teachers correcting your usage of who and whom. Erin believes that the users of a language define the language, and she bucks the idea the only real definition is the one in the OED. It's an interesting question, really. Is the correct usage of a word the one defined for us and listed in the print dictionaries? OR is the correct usage really just defined by how the population uses it? Take a look at Erin's talks, browse the site, and decide for yourself.

Erin McKean at TED

Erin McKean at Google

Erin McKean article about using words


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