Dictionary 2.0: Wordnik.com Creates New Way to Find Words

Google executive teams with Wordnik to grow online dictionary.

August 25, 2011, 10:45 AM

Aug. 26, 2011— -- This week, just as Merriam-Webster announced "tweet" would be included in the 11th edition of their Collegiate Dictionary, a brand new word showed up -- where else? -- on Twitter.

'Bugnado,' referring to a swarm of bugs resembling a tornado, first surfaced when news organizations started tweeting about an "Amazing 'Bugnado'" caught on tape in Council Bluff, Iowa. Another "gag-inducing" bugnado showed up earlier this month in Missouri, and was featured on ABC News affiliate website WJLA.com.

Click on the video, and you'll find out exactly what 'bugnado' means.

You won't find the term "bugnado" in Merriam-Webster's dictionary. Traditional dictionaries, tied to the costly process of producing paper books, can't afford to add new words at a rapid pace.

But there is one dictionary where it does appear: Wordnik.com.

Erin McKean, the former editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary and founder of Wordnik.com, describes it as "the biggest English dictionary ever."

Unlike urbandictionary.com, which specializes in street lingo, or UCLA's popular slang dictionary, Wordnik aims to include "all the words."

It's 10 times the size of the Oxford English dictionary, and the newest words are so new they don't yet have a definition. Instead, Wordnik provides links to places where the word was discovered.

Lately, "a whole bunch of fashion words have been making the rounds," McKean told ABCNews.com.

For example, 'flatform': a spring footwear trend. Search for it on Wordnik.com and you won't find a definition. But you will find several references that convey the word's meaning.

"We just accumulate example sentences -- we can archive these words and if they turn out to be important we can write a definition," McKean said, adding that all the site's definitions are licensed from traditional dictionaries.

The small staff of 18 at Wordnik, based in San Mateo, Calif., added at least half a million words to Wordnik over the past year. And now that Google's vice president of product management, Bradley Horowitz, has joined Wordnik's board of directors, and the company has secured $12.8 million in funding, Wordnik is uniquely poised to redefine the dictionary.

Unlike traditional dictionaries, the website features pronunciation sound files, related words, usage patterns and information derived from social networks.

New Online Dictionary Wordnik Outpaces Traditional Dictionaries

While Wordnik continues to add new words at a rapid pace, paper dictionaries continue to take a more cautious and data-driven approach.

"Language is changing more quickly because communication is faster," Merriam-Webster's editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, told ABCNews.com. "Because communication is faster we get words like tweet and crowd sourcing in the dictionary very, very quickly."

But for paper dictionaries, "quickly" generally means within five years.

Earlier this month, for example, three of the 400 new words added to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary were: "retweet," "sexting" and "mankini," all words that have been part of the popular lexicon for years.

Words aren't added, Sokolowski said, until they've proven their longevity. The word "tweet" for example, wasn't always used to describe a post made on Twitter. As recently as 2007, he said, some people used to say "send me a Twitter," but eventually "tweet" became more popular.

Sokolowski said one noteworthy new addition to Merriam-Webster's 11th edition this week is "fist bump." It's commonly used in sports when players congratulate one another, and the term really picked up steam in 2008 after President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama affectionately tapped fists onstage in St. Paul, Minn., during the Democratic nomination.

At this point, Sokolowski says, "The whole culture has adopted this gesture."

New Words Added to Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Another recent addition of note: "parkour," defined as "the sport of traversing environmental obstacles by running, climbing, or leaping rapidly and efficiently." The latter gained popularity in viral videos, and was later parodied on NBC sitcom "The Office."

Before choosing the new words, 40 Merriam-Webster editors troll newspapers, books and websites, marking new words and looking new uses of old words.

"Over time that gives us a large database of citations of the word in use," Sokolowski said. "We follow this day after day, year after year, so we know which words are being used with increasing frequency by the U.S. public." In order for a word to make the cut, he added, its usage must increase in use over time, and enter culture "in a broad way."

Whether the word "bromance," defined as "a close nonsexual friendship between men," could (or should) be here to stay, is another discussion entirely.

Next year, Sokolowski said, Merriam-Webster is considering adding "millennial," "man cave" and "mashup."

When McKean wants to add a word, however, she can do it immediately. Traditional dictionaries need to change, she said, in order to stay relevant.

"Having a separate place where you go somewhere to look for a word is not the future," she said. "When you see a word why can't you just tap the word to get information about it?"

Wordnik is working on doing just that, McKean said, creating a layer over text that provides "free-range definitions" that live "out in the wild" of the Internet.

"The newer a word is the more likely you want to know about it," she said. "Every word has a chance to have real staying power in the English language. With Wordnik we want to give all these words an equal chance."

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