Wordnik founder Erin McKean talks about her ideal dictionary

Erin McKeanErin McKean is the founder and CEO of Wordnik. Before Wordnik, she was the editor in chief of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press. She has stated that her life goal is “to make sure every word in English has a place in the dictionary.” In her “free” time, she has written half a dozen books, including the Weird and Wonderful Words series, the novel The Secret Lives of Dresses, and The Hundred Dresses (a field guide to dress archetypes).

You have described yourself as a “dictionary evangelist,” which seems to imply persuading people to change or adopt a belief. What belief is that?

It’s more about what I’d like people to stop believing about dictionaries. Sometimes it seems as if people think that words just go into dictionaries to be preserved indefinitely, like pressed flowers. The dictionary is seen as this arbiter of the One True Answer to any question about a word, instead of a buffet of possible (and delicious) answers.

To fight this mistaken belief, I try to change the conversation from “is this word in the dictionary (and therefore a “good” word)?” to “what information is available about this word, and how can you use it to make a decision about this word’s fitness for your purpose?”

I’d love for dictionary entries to be used as you’d use the technical specs for some piece of equipment. In the same way that you’d check whether the washing machine you want to buy has the right cubic capacity for your household, you’d look up a word to check whether it had the right denotation, range of use, tone, literary allusions, or what-have-you for your intended use. The role of the dictionary is to help you decide on the right word for you, not to rule whether something is or isn’t a word.

I truly believe that if something is used as a word, it’s a word. The rest is just bookkeeping.

So your dictionary would include irregardless and flustrate and misunderestimate. And it would say that one meaning of literally is “figuratively.”

Absolutely. And it would include the extremely important information that these words are considered to be errors, nonstandard, not educated. It’s not enough to tell what words mean; you also have to give users insight into the social and cultural implications of certain word choices. Who uses this word? What do people think about using this word? In addition to the dictionary, you need an “opinionary”—what do people think about this word? What’s missing from most dictionaries (largely due to constraints of time and space) is the “opinionary” layer.

In a perfect world every word would have a Garneresque level of attention paid to it. The comments on Wordnik are one step toward this, but I’m hoping to add some more ways for people to register their opinions about words.

Nobody is born knowing that irregardless is a nonstandard word. You have to learn that by cultural transmission. It’s like knowing which fork to use at a fancy dinner—except that for many words, it’s harder to find that out.

There’s a recurring bit in some of Angela Thirkell’s novels where she has two characters talk about how one really shouldn’t use mutual to describe a friend that two people have in common, and how “Mr. Dickens” can do what he likes, but other people (notably, in one example, the “Mixo-Lydian” refugee Gradka) should not. But saying mutual friend isn’t unintelligible nonsense; it’s just something that Thirkell’s characters felt they had to point out that People Not Like Us, Dear do. There isn’t one species of “good English” that everyone knows; there are all sorts of shades and distinctions that mark off which tribe of the English-speaking world you belong to.

To have a dictionary that doesn’t include irregardless is a dereliction of duty. When a word inspires so much ire, it needs to have a warning label. You can’t just ignore it and hope it goes away.

What a great idea: warning labels for words. Maybe your dictionary could have a color scheme, with “loaded” words in red.

So now that dictionaries are no longer limited to the number of words that will fit in a large printed book, is your dream dictionary becoming a reality? Is that what you want Wordnik to be?

My dream is for Wordnik to have as much information as possible about as many words as possible—ideally, every word in the English language. It’s a long way off—I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime—but that’s the goal. And of course it will never end, because English adds new words all the time.

And we wouldn’t want to stop at just “words”—you’d want to have phrases, and quotations, and allusions (one of my favorite reference books is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) and acronyms and abbreviations, and, god help us all, emoji . . . Someone asked me about adding emoji to Wordnik just last week, and I’m looking into it. Because people actually do need help in figuring out the correct emoji to use, where “correct” means “right for the context.” Are the “clapping hands” enthusiastic? Sarcastic? Both? I love the idea of showing a bunch of example sentences that include emoji and letting users figure it out. For instance, the “eggplant” emoji, which you would think would be hardly ever used, shows up quite a bit in what seem to be sexually suggestive contexts. That’s something you ought to know if you’re going to “speak emoji.”

Ideally, Wordnik would have a page for every word with just the bare facts—some example sentences, some statistical information, a traditional definition if there is one, some thesaurus words—and people would show up to add their commentary and color. The factual information is just the seed in the oyster—the comments give the word its luster. (This may be the first time I have ever come out in favor of Internet comments, but Wordnik users are pretty great.)

CMOS users are also pretty great—I’m sure many are already familiar with Wordnik, and now maybe the rest will visit the site to see what you’ve been talking about.

Before we let you go, could you say something about . . . dresses? From your online writings, a person might wonder whether your missionary zeal to promote word awareness has anything in common with your enthusiasm for fashion history.

I think they have a great deal in common. In both language and fashion I’m an advocate of self-expression and utilitarianism: you should choose the clothes that suit you best and are appropriate for the context (and with any luck that combination is possible). The fourth Earl of Chesterfield said that “words are the dress of thoughts” (or close enough) and I agree—although the earl was advocating for “refined” language and dress, and would probably not enjoy the way we write and speak today.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I encourage people to make their own clothes as well as invent new words—I blog about sewing and make nearly all the dresses I wear. I also wrote a book (The Hundred Dresses) about what certain styles of dresses communicate; e.g., what does it mean to wear a “flapper” dress?

And of course there are fashion peeves as well as language peeves to indulge in; I’m usually more aggrieved by pocketless garments than I am by “filler” words (like uh or um).

People often pun about CMOS “style”— from now on, we’ll refer them to this interview. Meanwhile, thank you for talking with us! Here’s to words—and dresses—that fit perfectly.

UPDATE 9.18.2015: Erin McKean and her colleagues are launching a campaign to find a million words that are missing from traditional dictionaries and add them (with explanatory example sentences) to Wordnik. You can read about their fund-raiser at Kickstarter.

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