Interview with Erin McKean

A good definition is like a good poem: beautiful and worthwhile in itself” – Interview with lexistar Erin McKean.Erin McKean

Before starting Wordnik, Erin McKean was editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. She is the editor of the irregularly-published recreational-linguistics journal VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly, and the author of Weird and Wonderful Words, More Weird and Wonderful Words, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, and That’s Amore (also about words), as well as the novel The Secret Lives of Dresses. She has served on the board of the Dictionary Society of North America and on the editorial board for its journal, Dictionaries, as well as on the editorial board for the journal of the American Dialect Society, American Speech. She also serves on the advisory boards of the Credo Reference and the Dictionary of American Regional English. She has a A.B./A.M. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. She rants about dresses on her blog (A Dress A Day, listed as one of the top fifty fashion blogs online by FashionIQ), and is disconcertingly bad at Scrabble (but surprisingly good at roller-skating). She can be reached at

1. Maria Pia Montoro: When and why did you decide to abandon “traditional” lexicography and simply enjoy words?

Erin McKean: When I was working on print dictionaries, I was lucky enough to have a lot of opportunities to talk to the people who actually used them … but I found myself spending more time explaining why the word they were interested in wasn’t in the dictionary (or wasn’t updated, or wasn’t fully explained) than I did talking about what really interested them. So I figured that maybe print dictionaries were the wrong way to help people who loved words and wanted to have more of them.

2. Maria Pia Montoro: Selecting words for a dictionary will never be an exact science but you gave a radical solution to the problem. With the slogan “All the Words”, you welcome new words without asking too many questions… so, is there enough room to welcome all of them?

Erin McKean: Oh yes – we have plenty of space for all the words! Space isn’t the problem. The real question is: how can we give you useful information about all of the words? That’s trickier. And what is useful is different for different people. For some words, people really want a precise definition – say, scientific and technical words. What exactly is a yottabyte? For others, people want to know how the word fits into the system of English: what’s the relationship between “very,” “terribly”, “quite”, and “awfully”? But for some words, it’s just enough to know it exists, such as “awesomepants”.

3. Maria Pia Montoro: With Wordnik you definitely said bye-bye to the validation. As you say: “If you love a word use it. That makes it real”, is it enough to make it a word? The risk is that it could be frustrating even only trying to monitor them…

Erin McKean: Yes, if I were trying to list all the words I would be very frustrated! But luckily now most of my work is focused one level up: how can I set processes in place that will add relevant data to as many individual words as possible? Sometimes that’s figuring out ways to add good sentences; sometimes that’s figuring out ways to make it easy and fun for human beings to make lists themselves.

4. Maria Pia Montoro: Crowd-sourcing is central and once a word is included in Wordnik, its clever software “populates” the entry by bringing in examples from its corpus, from the Web, and from the Twittersphere, and (when appropriate) grabbing images from Flickr. Will the lexicographer be replaced by a software? Is the definition, patiently crafted by a lexicographer, deemed to extinction?

Erin McKean: I think a good definition is like a good poem: beautiful and worthwhile in itself. But not every subject gets a poem, and not every word needs a definition. Definitions are still helpful when space is limited, but when you limit your knowledge of a word to just the definition, you limit your understanding as well.

5. Maria Pia Montoro: Wordnik is compatible with the priorities and expectations of users of the Web, especially digital natives: if a word is used, people expect to find it in their online dictionary. Which contribution are you bringing to lexicography with your new approach? Do you official state that speed and convenience getting a useful answer now are more important than authority? Or is it simply enjoyment of language for its own sake?

Erin McKean: With Wordnik, I hope that we are encouraging people to develop their own critical thinking skills, which are essential for being a successful digital native. Wordnik has no authority other than the authority it inherits from the data it shows: if a word has a wonderful example from the Wall Street Journal, for instance, then the authority for the use of that word isn’t Wordnik, it’s the WSJ. And if there is a well-reasoned, well-written comment from a Wordnik user on a word, you can go and check out that user’s profile page (if it’s public) and base your acceptance of that comment on your assessment of that user’s trustworthiness. And even if there’s no data for a word, you can always check the “statistics” at the bottom of the page, and see how many other people have looked up the same word! If it’s in the thousands, it’s probably a relatively decent word. If it’s in the single digits, well … Users should always, always consider the source for anything they find online, and make judgments accordingly.

6. Maria Pia Montoro: In my opinion, who asserts that “if we are worrying less about control and more about description, then we can think of the English language as being this beautiful mobile” is an extremist descriptivist! How do you describe your approach with lexicography?

Erin McKean: I think most lexicographers are what I call “practical descriptivists”. We want to show as much data as possible about as many words as possible. And that data should really include information about whether other people consider a word appropriate, suitable, of some literary merit – all the opinions of the prescriptivists, in fact! But they should be presented as “data about opinions” and not as incontrovertible fact.

7. Maria Pia Montoro: I can’t resist to ask you how would be IATE powered by Wordnik..

Erin McKean: IATE is a huge effort … just the thought of having data in so many different languages makes my head spin! Wordnik is really limited to English. I encourage people to “steal” Wordnik-like ideas, though show more data, make it easy for users to contribute, and (most of all) have fun! Language is fun and we should keep it that way.

Interviewer: Maria Pia Montoro

mpMaria Pia Montoro graduated in Modern Literatures, she has a Master in Journalistic Translation and a certification in Terminology Management. She currently works as a web content editor for the European Commission website Together against Trafficking in Human Beings. Previously she spent six months at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament as a terminologist.

Her enthusiastic passion for terminology is noticeable in her blog WordLo, where she explores neologisms, buzzwords, terminology, linguistics and more.

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