January 10, 2012

I’m a word nerd. I like learning the etymology of words and seeing how language changes over time. So I was intrigued when comedian Harris Wittels coined the term “humblebrag” and when Weird Al Yankovic used the word “kardash” to describe a unit of time measuring 72 days. Would “humblebrag” and “kardash” become mainstream, I wondered, and would they ever show up in a traditional dictionary?

As old words take on new meanings and new words emerge, questions about the fluidity of language and the meaning of words become more complicated — and more interesting. Now, thanks to sites like Urban Dictionary and Wordnik, we can track words as they evolve and see how they carry different meanings for different people at different points in time.

“If a word is persuasive enough, and if your usage is provocative enough and feels real enough, you can make a word mean what you want it to mean,” said Erin McKean, lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. “At Wordnik, we’re trying to redefine what meaning means.”

McKean founded the online dictionary in 2008 because she wanted a home for words that weren’t making it into traditional dictionaries.

Words can mean what we want them to mean

Just as journalism has become more data-driven in recent years, McKean said by phone, so has lexicography. Wordnik uses algorithms to search for citations or “examples” of words, which get listed next to a word’s definitions. McKean refers to the citations as “language data” — information that helps people not only understand what a word means, but how it’s being used, who’s using it, and how long it’s been around. If the word hasn’t made its way into the traditional dictionary yet, the citations stand in place of a definition.

“At Wordnik, we believe, like Humpty Dumpty, that words mean what we want them to mean.”

“By showing people language data, we give people raw materials that they can use to investigate what they’re interested in,” said McKean, who used to be principal editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. “Lexicographers are like data journalists with the tiniest beat. We report for each word in the language.”

The citations, McKean said, add context that helps people understand words in ways that definitions can’t. She described dictionary definitions as simply the “CliffNotes version” of all the citations that lexicographers read.

McKean said the question she gets asked the most is whether language is accelerating at a faster pace than years ago. It’s hard to say for sure, she said, but the multitude of platforms for sharing information certainly makes it feel more accelerated. “How would Charlie Sheen have gotten ‘winning‘ out there before Twitter?” she asked. “There are so many more places for people to record their language and share it without being filtered.”

People often confuse cause and effect when it comes to new words, she said. Words don’t become important because they’re added to the dictionary. They become important because of how people are using them and then they’re added to the dictionary.

Language as form of expression that has no rules

Aaron Peckham, founder of Urban Dictionary, sees new words emerge every day. Peckham started the site in college because he was using words with his friends that weren’t getting into the dictionary fast enough. Twelve years later, the site has more than six million words and gets about 25 million visitors each month.

The standards for Urban Dictionary definitions, which users submit themselves, aren’t very high. But Peckham prefers it that way. “People write really opinionated definitions and incorrect definitions. There are also ones that have poor spelling and poor grammar,” he said in a phone interview. “I think reading those makes definitions more entertaining and sometimes more accurate and honest than a heavily researched dictionary definition.”

The words and definitions on UrbanDictionary.com are often crass, but Peckham doesn’t tinker with them because they show the fluidity of language. And they show that language is constantly evolving, sometimes minute by minute. Every 30 seconds, he said, someone submits a new word to Urban Dictionary. Some words — including “hipster,” which was the most looked-up word on the site in 2011 — have more than 300 definitions.

“People are always adapting the language, and it’s cool to see that reflected somewhere,” Peckham said.

Peckham sees language as a form of expression that has no rules and is open for interpretation. “When you write a news article, you follow a particular style, but I don’t think there really needs to be a consistent model when it comes to defining language,” he said. “Just because people misspell things, (whether intentionally or unintentionally), or people don’t use correct grammar, it doesn’t mean their expression isn’t valid.”

He considers traditional dictionaries to be too authoritative because they make it seem as though there’s only one right way to define a word. People, he said, should have the option of creating their own definitions that contribute to a collective understanding of words.

“The part of Urban Dictionary that I love the most and that I want to protect is its personality. People write really witty definitions, and they aren’t taking it very seriously,” he said. “I feel like that’s what distinguishes Urban Dictionary from other dictionaries and Wikipedia. It’s not trying to be the authority, and it’s not trying to be without an opinion.”

Getting a word on the site is easy: Users submit a word, a small group of volunteers approves it, and it goes up on the site. Definitions are listed by popularity, which is determined by how many users give the word a thumbs-up.

Getting a word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a bit — OK, a lot — more complicated.

Taking time to track a word’s evolution

Throughout the year, Merriam-Webster Dictionary editors look at news stories, books and menus in search of new words. They keep running lists of how words are used and how often they’re used. “Finding citations is the first step,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large. “Each word has to have a body of evidence that shows it’s increasing in use, and it has to have a clear meaning. That sometimes can take a number of years.”

New words aren’t added to MerriamWebster.com until they’re added to the print version. The site does, however, have a section called “New Words and Slang,” which features words that users submit. Unlike Urban Dictionary, Merriam-Webster tweaks users’ definitions so that they conform to the dictionary’s style.

Some of the words in the section are pretty creative — “Upscalator” (an escalator that goes up); freighbor (a friend who’s a neighbor) and “textitis” (pain in the thumbs from frequent texting). Other words, such as “jeggings” and “hashtag,” are so familiar and commonly used that it’s almost disappointing they’re not yet in the dictionary. “Tweet,” “helicopter parent” and “boomerang child” are a few of the 150 or so words that were added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary last year.

Once Merriam-Webster decides a word should be added, junior editors craft a rough definition, which then goes through a copy editor and the editor-in-chief (known internally as the “director of defining.”)

Sokolowski said he likes the idea of sites like Urban Dictionary and Wordnik, but believes people need well-crafted definitions to really understand words.

“Putting a lot of examples of a single word in a single place is certainly the first step toward understanding a word, but citations aren’t definitions,” Sokolowski said. “In our experience, selecting and crafting good examples and then deriving standardized definitions from them is a helpful thing.”

He pointed out that words with subtle differences in meaning (such as “effect” and “affect”) are often the most looked-up words on MerriamWebster.com. “We want to help people understand these shades of meaning,” he said, noting that the site gets more than 100 million page views each month.

News coverage often drives the most looked-up words. When Andy Rooney died, for instance, Sokolowski noticed that people started looking up the word “curmudgeon” because they were reading it in obituaries. One of the most looked-up words of 2011 was “mercurial,” which Sokolowski describes as “a word favored by journalists who are covering a prominent and controversial figure.” Journalists, he said, used it to describe Keith Olbermann, Steve Jobs, Kim Jong Il and Moammar Gadhafiand searches for the definition of the word spiked as a result.

Whether they’re looking up words in the traditional dictionary, trying to make sense of new words, or making up their own on Urban Dictionary, people are interested in language — and how it’s evolving. Last week, the American Dialect Society chose “occupy” as the 2011 Word of the Year, in part because it was an older word that developed new uses and meanings.

“One of the reasons we put the heart in the Wordnik logo is because we believe people really love words,” McKean told me. “We should make exploring words and finding meaning and connecting meaning as fun an experience as possible. Some sites make you feel like you should be punished for looking up a word. We like you to feel rewarded.”

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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