Happy Dictionary Day, writers and wordsmiths! Yup, that’s right — there’s a day dedicated to the very spine of our language, and to join in on the fun, we’ve decided to interview lexicographer Erin McKean. “What’s a lexicographer?” you ask. Why, it’s a person who edits or authors one of the world’s greatest references, the dictionary! Read on to hear how Erin created a career whittling words.
In addition to founding Wordnik.com, an online dictionary that pulls meanings from multiple sources on the web, Erin’s accomplishments include acting as the editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, serving on the board of the Dictionary Society of North America, penning a word-based column in The Boston Globe, and authoring books such as The Secret Lives of Dresses, a novel fueled by the sartorial scribblings of her blog, A Dress a Day.
How does one begin a career in lexicography? Did you study writing?
I knew I wanted to work on dictionaries since I was about eight. I read an article in the newspaper about the OED, and I was hooked — I even cut it out and saved it! So, yes, I had a bit of a headstart. I studied linguistics at the University of Chicago, which had (and has) many active dictionary projects, and I worked as a volunteer at the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, mostly filing stuff and underlining titles in manuscripts with colored pencils. It was a wonderful introduction to classical lexicography.
When did you know you were ready to start a site of your own?
Wordnik really started with a talk I gave at the TED conference in 2007. I hadn’t really thought about starting a company until I was introduced to Roger McNamee, a visionary Silicon Valley investor. Meeting Roger made me start thinking about how I would start something like this, and it’s been the best adventure ever.
Why is ‘discovering meaning’ important?
I think it’s important to say that we ‘discover’ what words mean, rather than ‘define’ what words mean. It’s definitely an exploration, not an executive decision. Every word is a group activity — we all agree to use a certain word in a certain way, and discovering the boundaries of these agreements is fascinating (at least to me).
When we see a new word, we should always be open to its meaning being fuzzy and not completely gelled yet, instead of rushing to put it in a rigid box of definition.
Is it okay to make up new words?
Absolutely! More than okay — it’s how we refresh the language. English would get so boring if we couldn’t add new words, whether we really ‘need’ them or not.
Bits and pieces of Erin’s smart, stylish space.
We’re really into puns. Do you find much comic relief in your field of expertise?
I’m not a big punster, but I’m addicted to something I call “That’s a Great Name For A Band,” or GNFAB for short. I even have a Twitter account I use for nothing but posting GNFABs.
We’ve read your book, The Secret Lives of Dresses, and checked out your blog. How has your career led you to fashion?
I didn’t used to think of them as connected, but for some reason, there are a lot of very spiffy lexicographers. Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster is always very dapper; so is Jesse Sheidlower of the OED, and then there’s Kory Stamper of M-W who is also an accomplished knitter.
I think, perhaps, if you really believe that ‘words are the dress of thoughts,’ you probably take some pains over your physical dress, as well. I think of writing about fashion as a hobby, but I was once told that “any sufficiently advanced hobby is indistinguishable from a job,” and now I know it’s true.
Surely you have a super wide-spanning vocabulary. Do you have any tips for folks wanting to work more of a variety of words into their everyday?
The absolute best way to increase your vocabulary is to read more. Read lots. Read stuff that’s unfamiliar to you, read stuff from different time periods and set in different places… learning words in context is key. Then, once you’ve found a word you like, use it right away. Use it a lot. Use it until your friends say, “What’s up with you and that word?” Then it will be truly yours.