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Love makes words real.

Eric McKean is my very favorite lexicographer in the whole wide world. She’s also one of the coolest bloggers and speakers I know of – at least one (happily married) friend proposed marriage to her after her talk at Pop!Tech last year. (And he beat me to it. And she’s already married. As am I.)

She begins with an analogy for how people see lexicographers – as traffic cops. And this is because “most people don’t have a warm, snuggly image of the dictionary.” They imagine cops letting the good words in, keeping the bad words out. But the analogy should be towards fishermen – lexicographers reach deep into the sea of language and pull up the beautiful words.

Paper dictionaries are obsolete, and online dictionaries are not much better – they’re steampunk, “an electric velocipede” – a victorian invention under computer power. Online dictionaries are more searchable, but they unfortuntately eliminate serendipity – the wonderful experience of encountering the words you never expected to see.

Paper dictionaries suffer from “the hambutt problem”. When making a ham, Erin realized that her mother always cut the butt off the ham. So she called her mother and asked why. Mom said, “that’s what Grandma always did.” So they called Grandma… who said, “I never had a big enough pan.” There are words that aren’t in the dictionary because the pan’s not big enough.

“The book is the wrong shape for the dictionary.” It’s not the shape dictionaries will come in in future times. And by having a dictionary only of allowed and allowable words skews our study of language – “What if we only studied cute ainmals – we’d know a lot about charismatic megafauna and not about other animals?”

People ask Erin, “How do I know if a word is real?” She leans on children’s books to explain that “Love makes things real.” If you love a word, if you use it, transform it, verbing nouns and such, you make language move.

Erin believes that we’re studying only a small fraction of language – there’s a huge pile of “undictionaried” words, in newspapers and blogs, that could fill other OEDs. “I find more new words on Boing Boing in a given week than in Newsweek or Time.” She urges an amateur exploration of language, like our exploration of space.

The locus of this exploration: the Internet. “The internet is made out of words and enthusiasm. That also happens to be the recipe for lexicography.” There’s better and worse ways of using the web to study language – we need ways that give us the provenance of words – “a word without provenance is just a pretty thing to look at”, like a cut flower.

Erin’s goal is for her seven year old son to see paper dictionaries as we see eight-track tapes – as an obsolete format. And her desire for a truly complete dictionary is turning her into an evangelist.

3 thoughts on “Love makes words real.”

  1. This is completely unrelated to your post, but I publish a small science fiction zine called Electric Velocipede. I’m also editing an anthology of stories based on spelling-bee winning words called LOGORRHEA.

    Related to your post, thank you for introducing me to Erin McKean. :)

  2. She leans on children’s books to explain that “Love makes things real.” If you love a word, if you use it, transform it, verbing nouns and such, you make language move.

    Does she get to run and play with the real lexicographers? :-)

  3. (er, that was a Velveteen Rabbit reference and meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not an aspersion on Erin’s terrific work at all)

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