Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moped… Motorcycle? Motel?

There’s a review on The New York Times.com today about Wordnik, a site aiming to be to dictionaries what Wikipedia is to encyclopedias, providing more up-to-date, open-sourced information than an official hard copy publication. Just one little thing—it appears there’s no vetting process for the veracity of the information you’re getting. However, the site appears to be in trustworthy hands. The founder of Wordnik, Erin McKean, was previously a principal editor for the New Oxford English Dictionary. If there are better credentials to be had for a project like this, I don’t know what they’d be.

The home page mimics Google’s sparse layout, even to the inclusion of the “I always feel lucky” button, and the site provides a spread of information on your search. What it’s pulling from, though, are definitions and usages from all over the web, and there’s no real guarantee that the usages are correct. There are obviously complex algorithms pulling the information, but we all know what a finicky thing language is, and how many of us don’t use it correctly (the search algorithm even pulls Twitter content). Obviously, intelligent human beings are programming the algorithms to be as exacting and content-aware as possible, but to not have  human intuition or qualified experts involved in vetting the information would make me a little nervous if I was writing a quality term paper.

A search on Wordnik for one of my favorite words, defenestration, brings up a nice, clean layout (much more aesthetically pleasing than the same search on Dictionary.com), and the source material it’s pulled for definitions seems trustworthy (and/or funny, like the third usage in Wiktionary), but some of the usages aren’t really helpful.

There are plans in the future for having the site be gifted enough to recommend books you might like, and there are evidently new business partnerships coming in the near future (though I hope they don’t muck up their nice clean layout with a bunch of ads).

So for now, I think I’ll stick to verifiable sources for the serious stuff, but the site has fun possibilities, if only just for the sake of curiosity. And we’re always curious.

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Categories: In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moped… Motorcycle? Motel?

  1. The only way I thought “defenestration” applied to Windows the program was if the program frustrated you so much that you threw the whole contraption out a physical window. This is the first post I’ve read on your new blog and I already learned something new! 🙂

  2. Will B

    The idea of making the English language more democratic frightens me, even if moderated by a lexicographer.

    Consider how King James II who, upon viewing the newly constructed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, pronounced it “amusing, awful and artificial.” In his time (late 17th century), this was the highest of compliments and meant “pleasing”, “inspiring awe” and “skillfully achieved”, but not anymore. Consider the glacial transformation of grammar and usage that makes Chaucer’s 700-year-old “Canterbury Tales” need a translation for modern readers. Now consider the modern words “billion” and “trillion.” American and British definitions of those words are different by 10 cubed! These examples illustrate the down-side to the democratic nature of the English language: we lose our connection to our linguistic forbears and even to other contemporary speakers.

    Do we need the English language version of the Academie Francaise to set definitions, usage, and intelligently alter the language when necessary? I think so. Our current lexicographers, in bending to popular usage, do not help the language. Wikis like Wordnik will only accelerate change and without much thought or deliberation.

    For my “Academie Anglaise”, I would point to the U.S. Supreme Court as a model: by debate and deliberation, word meanings (albeit only in their legal sense) are decided upon and codified regularly. Imagine a panel of authors, scientists, lawyers, social scientists, and others who would sit in judgment as academicians debated such topics as whether or not to abolish gender-specific pronouns, the elimination of “whom”, or the use of adjectives for adverbs (my pet peeve)? Like its French model, its decisions would be non-binding, so linguistic rebels could still “gyre and gimble in the wabe”.

    Perhaps only C-SPAN and its Commonwealth equivalents would televise it, but with it we’d have thoughtful change to the language (when any change was needed at all) rather than one driven by jargon, laziness, ignorance, marketing, and politics.

    If you like this idea, whom would you have sit in judgment (or judgEment, if you’d include foreigners) and who would stand before the bar?

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