Lexicographer: One who writes, compiles, or edits a dictionary. From the Greek words meaning words and write.
That's my not-very-subtle way of introducing you to Wordnik, the free online dictionary that makes its public debut today. Actually, "dictionary" doesn't do justice to this mammoth project, which one of its founders, Erin McKean—former editor-in-chief for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press— says "is going to completely revolutionize all of dictionary making forever." Or as the home page puts it, Wordnik is "an ongoing project devoted to discovering all the words and everything about them."
I've had a bit of a jump start on Wordnik: I was invited to take it for a spin about a week ago, and I've been impatient to share the good news ever since.
Here are some of the ways Wordnik incorporates and improves on other print and online dictionaries:
- It has 1.7 million entries and 130 million examples.
- Every word is accompanied by an audio file. (If it's missing, you're invited to record your own pronunciation on the site.)
- It includes definitions from multiple dictionaries, including American Heritage, Century, Webster's Unabridged (1913), and WordNet. If you know a different definition, or can't find one at all, you may submit your own.
- Most entries are accompanied by images from Flickr (sourced, McKean told me in a phone interview, by searching for the word, filtering for "interestingness" and filtering out adult content).
- Most entries have multiple usage examples from published sources. (Most recent print dictionaries have dispensed with this useful feature.)*
- Many entries have real-time results from Twitter. (The only Twitter results for "fritinancy" come from or are directed to yours truly, which is a strange thing to encounter in a dictionary.)
- Bubble graphs display the frequency with which any word has been used since 1800.
- Many pages have a "Fun & Games" section that provides anagrams and Scrabble score for a word. (For example, look up locate and scroll down to see "Fun & Games.")
- A "Serendipity" feature shows you unusual words that are alphabetically close to the word you looked up. "We didn't want to give up the good things about print dictionaries," McKean explained—including the way your eye may fall on a nearby word. Wordnik's serendipitous choices are chosen by an algorithm that searches for words based on their rarity.
In addition to McKean, the Wordnik staff includes Grant Barrett of the Double-Tongued Dictionary and the radio show A Way with Words; the computational lexicographer Orion Montoya; and several technologists with impressive credentials.
Wordnik got its start after Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, heard McKean talk about redefining the dictionary at the 2007 TED conference. (Video of that presentation is viewable here; it's one of the most-watched TED talks, for good reason.) McNamee and another VC, Steve Anderson, decided to fund the project, which means that at least for a while, McKean and company don't have to worry about making money. (Although McKean has a few ideas for when the need arises.)
Wordnik came together in just over a year, McKean told me—"a blink of an eye in dictionary time periods." She's thrilled that her "ultimate word project" isn't simply comprehensive but also fun. "One of our goals," McKean told me, "is to have corporate IT managers ban Wordnik because it's so much like a game."
UPDATE: Canada.com asks, "Will Wordnik Be the Next Google?" and calls Wordnik "lexicography's answer to the Swiss Army Knife."
* For some reason Wordnik does not include Samuel Johnson's famous definition of lexicographer: "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."