Christian Long

Erin McKean: Redefining the Dictionary

In TED Talks on April 25, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Reflection by GABRIELLA B.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Erin McKean:  Redefining the Dictionary

When you hear the word dictionary, what comes to mind?

Most of you probably aren’t thinking, ‘neat! I read mine through last week, for the fifth time!’

If visions of vast and dusty stacks of books, pages with print so small you go cross eyed looking at it for too long, and irritating pronunciation symbols most of us can’t tell from Greek are dancing in a dizzying pattern before your eyes. Then, you can rest assured, you are not alone.

It’s not that we dislike words. On the contrary they are the basis for almost any meaningful interaction we undertake. It’s just that when faced with the vast the set of rules and duplicitous meanings of words in the English language we tend to get snagged on those irritating technicalities like when to lay the dictionary down or lie the dictionary down… which is it again?

Either way this talk puts it all into a new perspective, McKean suggests that dictionaries shouldn’t be the rule books for the English language but a true compilation of the English language. This goal is something that simply can’t be contained in a book bound form. We need a new form of dictionary.

Now, why do we need a dictionary of this magnitude? I mean really, how often do you use even a small percent of the vast number f words that are in the dictionary?

Well, when I first heard her talk I really didn’t know what to think, but then as I thought about it what came to mind was the image of language that is presented in George Orwell’s 1984.

Words are being deleted, removed from circulation, words like vermilion, chartreuse, jade, emerald, and olive are gone because you really only need green. Marvelous adjectives like splendid, wonderful, excellent, superb, admirable, estimable, venerable, commendable, exemplary, glorious, superlative, magnificent, unmatched, and perfect, all replaced by good and double-plus-good.

Well then what about bad? Surely you still need bad, right? Actually you don’t, words like bad, maleficent, horrible, atrocious, horrific, ghastly, tragic, gruesome, appalling, dire and grisly can all be wiped out in one fell swoop of un-good.

The more I thought about it the more I realized how ghastly such a thing would be, think about it, even if you weren’t a writer, poet, journalist, speech writer, marketing expert, teacher, scientist, councilor, lawyer, psychologist, politician… the list goes on, you would still be a literate human being. Imagine how boring everyday conversations would get, how monotonous television, magazines, books, and movies would become.

This article would become rote. More than half of it would be censored for unlawful use of words no longer in existence and all copies would undoubtedly be hunted down and destroyed just for pointing this out.

McKean made similar points, in a talk she gave at iSummet in Sapporo Japan, which she has posted in her web site ( on a dystopia in which words are not a commons. It was a truly horrifying image for someone who loves words as much as I do. In essence there is a distinct need for a new form of dictionary so that none of our elastic and ever changing language is lost. Because if every English speaker on the globe stopped using a word like vivacious, and it wasn’t written down any where, in one or two generations that word would be lost to future generations forever.

So perhaps we don’t need to be worrying about keeping ‘bad’ words out of dictionaries but how to get as many words as possible in. Who wants moribund words like fortnight to take that last step over the point of dying out? Because if a word is not used then it is forgotten. Therefore it should at least have a place so that a century from now an enterprising individual can uncover that two weeks is a rather bland length of time in comparison.


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