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Early in my copy editing career, I learned that I’m of a more descriptive bent than most — I like learning how people are using language, and prefer Mrs. Thistlebottom’s comeuppance more than her comfort. But not entirely. I sympathize with the prescriptive crowd, who instill grammatical rules and have a bright-line sense of correct and incorrect usage. In reality, everyone who deals with language blends these two approaches to some degree — but there are those who profess to live on an extreme.

The people at Wordnik seem to want to live on the descriptive extreme, but have built in an interesting prescriptive element as well. Nonetheless, they say:

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

Wordnik is an online dictionary founded by people with the proper pedigrees — former editors, lexicographers, and so forth. They also have attracted $12.8 million in venture funding. Wordnik ties a wiki approach together with smart searches to create interesting pages blending definitions and examples. It’s a pretty nice execution of a smart idea. But they go further, with their CEO promising that Wordnik “understands and identifies matches at a concept level.”

This may be generally true, but it didn’t take long to find an exception.

By searching my mind for a little vernacular, I entered the phrase “crap out.” The definition returned was what I expected: to lose a game or (as a machine) to break down. However, all the examples pulled from the Web were the wrong usage — “he beat the crap out of” or “scare the crap out of.” These clearly are not conceptual matches.

It’s hard to live at the descriptive extreme when you’re fooled by the very language you’re describing.

The concept matching strikes me as an attempt at prescription, dressed up in technology. It’s trying to find correct matches to definitions it’s imposing (Wordnik doesn’t accept crowdsourced definitions currently), and usages that don’t match those are technically “wrong.” But if you can’t effectively assign a meaning to a filter, you can’t meld the two approaches.

This is the classic tension in a living language, especially a language like English, which is difficult to pronounce, has a rich and ever-changing vernacular, and is packed with slang. By putting a backdrop of prescription behind a descriptive approach, Wordnik is trying to have its cake and eat it, too.

And, as we all know, what “cake” means in that sentence is not the same as what it means today.

(Correction: Late-night blogging and word lock-in caused the original version of this post to be about “proscription” instead of “prescription.” This has been corrected, and the offending party dope-slapped.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


4 Thoughts on "Wordnik, the Online Dictionary — Revisiting the Prescritive vs. Descriptive Debate in the Crowdsource Age"

I think the debate is usually framed as between descriptivists and prescriptivists, not proscriptivists.

Just to belabor the point a bit, I developed a new theory of the nature of scientific language in my Ph.D. theses, about 2.5 eons ago. The gist of it is that concepts are theories. That is, the words we create have the meanings they do because we are trying to say what is true. Words are not arbitrary artifacts. Thus meanings, and definitions, will change as our understanding changes. For example, the word “heat: used to refer to a supposed substance, but no more. Language often lags understanding.

This may sound likable, but it violates the analytic synthetic distinction that underpins analytical philosophy, which was my field. My doctoral committee did not like it, to say the least.

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