Thursday, May 28, 2009

For Word Lovers and More: Decluttering and Dictionaries

Erin McKean

I've just spent some delightful time listening to Erin McKean. Erin is a lexicographer; she was editor-in-chief of The New Oxford American Dictionary, and is now the CEO of Wordnik - a new online dictionary that is still in beta. She's also a dynamic speaker.

First, I saw Erin's talk at the Gel 2006 conference, where she said:
A dictionary is a tool - it's a toolbox. The words in the dictionary are tools.

I put words in the dictionary based on one criteria only: Are they useful? ... If you have a toolbox that's full of, like, leftover parts from stuff you made from Ikea, and shiny buttons - that's not a useful toolbox. And if I keep words that aren't useful - even if they're beautiful - it's not a useful tool.
When Erin spoke at Google in July 2007, she was asked whether words get retired from dictionaries. Yes, she said, but The New Oxford American Dictionary is only in its second edition, so not much has been retired yet.
We haven't used up all the storage yet; we haven't had to rent a mini-locker for the words that we can't fit in any more. But really, it's the same decision about putting a word into the dictionary, in reverse. Is it useful anymore?
And here's a bit more from that talk:
Print dictionaries have an expiration date. ... If you got one for your high school graduation, or when you went to college, and you go to a reunion and everyone is bald, it's time for a new dictionary.

But you don't have to throw away the old one. A lot of people say, "Oh, if I get a new dictionary, I'll have to throw away the old one where I made all these notes." How small of a house do you live in? One does not replace the other; you get to keep it.
Edited to add this note: While some people may have good reasons to keep the old dictionaries, for others they are clutter.

If you want even more of Erin, you can also watch her TED talk from March 2007.

[photo from Wikimedia, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License]


newleafnews said...

I have the dictionary I received from my editor at my first newspaper stringer job (Quad City Times), 35+ years ago. Wouldn't let go of it for anything, though it has changed from tool to memorabilia in that time!

Thanks for the fun post, Jeri!

Jeri Dansky said...

New Leaf News: And I'm the type who keeps minimal memorabilia; I got rid of the dictionary I won as a writing award back in grade school.

To each her own!