Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Book Is The Wrong Shape For A Dictionary

My friend Mac Dunlop turned me on to this excellent link with four outstanding interviews about language, architecture, and earth-bound asteroids. A must-read!

"Lexicographer Erin McKean once edited the New Oxford American Dictionary. Now, she's working to close the book on dictionaries, as we know them.


MCKEAN: Oh totally, but I think that the book shape is the wrong shape for the dictionary. I don't know if you cook very much, if you're from the South you may have actually cooked with Crisco. But at some point in the recent past you started being able to get Crisco in sticks. I think that Crisco in a stick is one of the triumphs of modern civilization. Because it's so much easier to cook with. The tub is the wrong shape for Crisco because you get it all over your hands; it's really hard to measure.

YOUNG: That's true.

MCKEAN: In the same way the book is the wrong shape for the dictionary because it's too small, it can't hold all the words. It can't even hold all the right kinds of information about the words that it does hold. It doesn't tell you anything about people's opinions about a word. It doesn't tell you people think this word is beautiful. It doesn't tell you, oh, this adjective is only used with these objects. It doesn't tell you words work, it only tells you what words mean, and what words mean is just one facet of how words work.YOUNG: So, the way we use a dictionary is clearly going to change. Is the content of the dictionary going to change a lot, as well? What's going to get in?

MCKEAN: Every single word, or phrase, or idiom, or combination. The only reason that some things are in a dictionary right now and some things aren't is that the print book is just too small to hold every word of English. Even the Oxford English Dictionary has fewer than a million words in it, and it's pretty easy without even doing a whole lot of heavy lifting to find more than, say, four million unique English words.

YOUNG: You got to draw the line somewhere. If I just say "squizzlebop" is that going to be a word?

MCKEAN: If you use it as a word, it's a word. It's all about intent and communicative value.

YOUNG: This is anarchy! This is anarchy!

MCKEAN: [Laughs] No, it's not! Just because a word is a word, doesn't mean it's a good word. And so part of the job of the dictionary is to let you know, most people think this word is terrible, so maybe you don't want to use it. A lot of people feel that if a word's in the dictionary it's perfectly okay to use, and if it's not in the dictionary it's perfectly not okay to use it. And this is not a very good system for making word decisions because the dictionary is on a time lag, especially print dictionaries, and because there may be words that are perfectly, let's say cromulent in certain contexts that are not okay in other contexts.

YOUNG: Cromulent? Excuse me; I have to go to a dictionary.

MCKEAN: [Laughs] That's a word you may not find in the dictionary because it's from an episode of "The Simpsons". And cromulent means "okay" and it was actually used when one of the teachers in Bart's school was saying to another teacher, you know, I can't believe you don't know that word – it's a perfectly cromulent word.

[YOUNG laughs]

MCKEAN: But once it was used in "The Simpsons" it became a word, automatically.

YOUNG: Uh huh. Well, will emoticons ever make it into the dictionary? Please say no.

MCKEAN: [Laughs] I'm going to have to disappoint you.

[YOUNG groans]

MCKEAN: Well, okay, but think about this: the exclamation point, if you really think about it, is a kind of emoticon.

YOUNG: Hmm.

MCKEAN: It's an image that tells you what kind of expression goes with the sentence. I mean think of the difference between saying, "It's on fire" period, and "It's on fire" exclamation point.

YOUNG: Is there any place at which I can make you draw the line and say, "No, sorry that's just not acceptable – that's not a word."

MCKEAN: People have tried. [Laughs] But the truth is that I'm not the person who decides what's a word and what's not a word. If you use something as a word, there's a little magic an alchemy that happens that makes that a word.

YOUNG: But you're writing dictionaries! Isn't that your job?

MCKEAN: My job is to map the language. So, I tell you where everything is, and what it is. But I don't leave the red-light district off the map because I disapprove of it.

YOUNG: Mm hmm.

MCKEAN: That would make a pretty bad map. And then you'd stumble into the red-light district and not know where the heck you were. And that wouldn't help anybody.

YOUNG: Are we headed toward something better than a word?

MCKEAN: In my opinion there is nothing better than words. Even if they invented some magical telepathy device or something that let us convey emotion through perfume or anything else. Nothing is better than words. And that is possibly my not inconsiderable bias talking.

YOUNG: Erin McKean, lexicographer and now CEO of a new online dictionary, called Wordnik. Thanks very much.

MCKEAN: You're very welcome."

For the entire transcripts of this excellent interview click here

1 comment:

DILLIGAF said...

'language, architecture, and earth-bound asteroids'

Oh eck.

Language? I have enough trouble with English. (The daughter can speak French and German...I'm sure she does it to wind me up)...;-)

Architecture? One of my best mates is an architect. He designs 'monstrous carbuncles' in my opinion. Amazing he still like me really...;-)

Earth-Bound Asteroids? Just gimme an hours notice to knock back sufficient voddy and I'll put up with it. Damn inconsiderate if the bloody things arrive unannounced!!!