The dictionary of everything (even Talknormalism)

The comedian Dave Barry wrote: “If you have a big enough dictionary, just about everything is a word.” We’re about to find out.

An article in Prospect Magazine (sorry the link only gives you the first few paragraphs, but enough to get the idea. And I do recommend subscribing, it’s a good read) tells us about a new dictionary called Wordnik, which has about 4 million entries, six times as many as the OED. This is because Wordnik isn’t printed, so the dictionary’s size is limited only by the size of its hard disk. When Wordnik finds new words it’s not snobby. It simply adds them to the database with the context in which it found them (for example, the tweet or the blog post). It doesn’t make arbitrary judgements as to what is a “proper” word or not, it just reflects what people are typing.

I like two things about Wordnik. First, the way that it uses the context in which it finds words to show meaning, so we can spot the enemy in its natural habitat. Take an example of recent office jargon like deliverable, for example (looked up 72 times on Wordnik so far, presumably by people at their desks thinking “I have to give them a what?”). The traditional dictionary definitions (Capable of being, or about to be, delivered; necessary to be delivered) don’t give any clue that it has become one of those words that sets our teeth on edge. But read the sentences provided as context instead, and you soon get the full horror.

The second is that is gives me the chance to make my mark on history. Talknormalism has not yet been discovered by Wordnik, but I would like to believe it’s a matter of time (it would help if you’d retweet it and blog it about a bit until I’m picked up). Imagine my pride when I point a bony finger at the entry in Wordnik in the years to come, and say to awestruck youngsters, that’s my word, that is.

Meanwhile if you’re at a loose end for the end of the week, use Wordnik to pick a random word: I discovered I was the first person to look up taxable-equivalent, but the 305th to look up cake. So in this case, at least, we’ve still got our priorities in the correct order.

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