Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wordnik -- The Revolutionary Online Dictionary

In 2007, Erin McKean gave a TED talk about changing what the dictionary means to us. Two years later, she launched Wordnik, a dictionary that evolves as language does.

Traditional dictionaries make you wait until they've found what they consider to be "enough" information about a word before they will show it to you. Wordnik knows you don't want to wait—if you're interested in a word, we're interested too!

Our goal is to show you as much information as possible, just as fast as we can find it, for every word in English, and to give you a place where you can make your own opinions about words known.

By "information," we don't just mean traditional definitions (although we have plenty of those)! This information could be:

  • An example sentence—even if we've only found one sentence for a word, we'll show it to you. (And we'll show you where the sentence came from, too!
  • Related words: not just synonyms and antonyms, but words that are used in the same contexts. (For instance, cheeseburger, milkshake, and doughnut are not synonyms, but they show up in the same kinds of sentences.)
  • Images tagged by our friends at Flickr: want to know what a "pout" looks like? We'll show you.
  • Statistics: how rare is "tintinnabulation"? Well, we think you'll see it only about once a year. "Smile"? You might see that word many times, every day.
  • An audio pronunciation—and you can record your own!
  • Something YOU tell us! Use the "Contribute" links to tell us something—anything—about a word.
On Wordnik, users can add new words and meanings, tag words with related expressions, see real-time search results for words from Twitter and Flickr, discover how many Scrabble points each word is worth -- all on one page.

It’s funny because it’s completely intuitive to dictionary editors. How can we show how a word is really used? The other day I tried to find out if “pants” was being used as a suffix and I found a tweet for “awesomepants.” Twitter is like overhearing people’s conversations, which is exactly what dictionary editors have been wishing we could do for years.

Flickr -- well, if you’ve looked at dictionary illustrations you know that they tend to be uninteresting, and so small. With Flickr, you get a lot of abstractions too. What dictionary would have pictures of “honor”? When you look “honor” up on Wordnik, you get pictures of women named Honor, which tells you that it’s also used as a proper noun. You also get images of flags and different symbols of the military. Now you can see what feelings words evoke.

I’m really looking forward to seeing Twitter used to invent new words. I’m more interested in seeing how people deepen and expand the network of words than seeing any words in particular. I really can’t wait to see what will happen with the tagging function. Already, if you look up the swine flu tag, you find words like “aporkalypse” and “hamdemic.” You would never find these in a regular dictionary! We’re trying to make the ephemeral more permanent. And, again, it’s less about the individual word and really about expanding how words are connected. After all, we don’t speak in one-word exchanges.
Read the entire article here and visit Wordnik.

Image Source: Leo Reynolds

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