Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Do We Learn the Meaning of Words?

Erin McKean, lexicographer extrordinaire and myth buster about language, recently gave a talk at PopTech! to announce her new project, Wordnik!

Wordnik! is still in it's beta phase, but when it's released, it will help much more than any traditional dictionary.

What is a Dictionary For, Anyway?

As Erin has pointed out in many other talks, there is a misconception that a dictionary prescribes fixed and correct definitions for words. In fact, lexicographers scan both current electronic and paper sources for the ways in which words are used NOW. Rather than fixing language, editions of dictionaries demonstrate how English changes over time.

Why Wordnik?

Erin's point is this: We don't learn new words from dictionary definitions. We learn through context. One definition of genius -- a concept that is introduced for the first time that sounds absolutely obvious.

Erin is certainly that.

Wordnik, like Wikipedia, allows everyone to add sentences that offer enhancements or alternatives to those already recorded.

To that end, Wordnik is a living dictionary that will be more accurate at any moment than any printed work.

How useful is that?

If you feel, however, that talk is cheap, visit Erin's site A Dress a Day instead.

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