Defining Words, Without the Arbiters

December 31, 2011

TRADITIONAL print dictionaries have long enlisted lexicographers to scrutinize new words as they pop up, weighing their merits and eventually accepting some of them.

Not Wordnik, the vast online dictionary.

No modern-day Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster ponders each prospective entry there. Instead, automatic programs search the Internet, combing the texts of news feeds, archived broadcasts, the blogosphere, Twitter posts and dozens of other sources for the raw material of Wordnik citations, says Erin McKean, a founder of the company.

Then, when you search for a word, Wordnik shows the information it has found, with no editorial tinkering. Instead, readers get the full linguistic Monty.

“We don’t pre-select and pre-prune,” she said. “We show you what’s out there now. Then we let people decide whether to use a word or not.”

At one time, she was the head of the pruners, as principal editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. She is also an author and columnist. (She wrote “On Language” columns for The New York Times as a substitute for William Safire.)

But Ms. McKean has chosen a different path at Wordnik. “Language changes every day, and the lexicographer should get out of the way,” she said. “You can type in anything, and we’ll show you what data we have.” Read more here >>>>


Erin McKean, Wordnik Founder