Not really dictionary-related, but …

I had a piece in the Boston Globe's Ideas section yesterday about Christmas Superstitions.
If you love reading about old superstitions (and I really do), hie yourself to Google Book Search and look for British Popular Customs, Present and Past. Be warned, though, that reading aloud from this to others is something that can be done only in very small doses. There's a limit to how many "Did you know"s? most people want to hear ….

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Sleazy and Restoring


[picture from Flickr — thanks, bradlauster!]
David Smay sent me a link to a lovely long article in the Guardian about using unusual words: From albedo to zugunruhe, in which the author, James Meek, talks about words he hasn't known and his own uneasiness about using rarer (but more exact) words.
It also has this great quote in it:

The point at which a man starts finding discrepancies in dictionaries is probably the point at which he should go for a long holiday to a place that is sleazy and restoring.

My take (and yes, I know it's self-serving, in that I make dictionaries) is that, in belletristic writing, when presented with an otherwise-equal choice between a fun, unusual word, and a boring, commonplace word, you should always choose the unusual one. Why deny your readers the "aha!" moment of finding a perfectly apt, elegantly descriptive word?
(Of course, I also think "when in doubt, wear orange," so you perhaps should take this with a grain of salt.)
Literary writing is a way to introduce readers not just to facts and ideas and emotions but to beautiful words: imagine writing a guidebook to a place that left out the best restaurants because they weren't on the subway line … if something is worthwhile, people will find a way to get there. If a word is perfect, people will figure it out.
I am NOT suggesting that technical or workaday writing should be full of fifty-cent words; "This way to the egress" is a scam, not an invitation to learning. (Or, at least, not an invitation to learning that is received gratefully!) But literature, long-form journalism, and essay writing allow for more lexical scope, and you should take advantage of it, to the best of your ability. Why not?

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Following Up from Ignite …

I keep meaning to post versions of the various talks I've given (the ones that are not videos) but I haven't yet, for myriad reasons … including trying to get actual work done. But the Ignite talk I gave was pretty short (five minutes!), so I thought I'd try to put it up here.

Slide 1: I always include a definition of 'lexicographer' when I talk; keeps people from elbowing their neighbor and asking 'what did she say she did again'?

Slide 2: Because this was a tech talk, I also pointed out that I was a geek. (I wore this skirt, by the way, for visual reinforcement of the concept.)

Slide 3: We all think of dictionaries as very concrete, solid objects. (You wouldn't want to drop one on your foot, would you?) But actually …

Slide 4: Dictionaries might be solid, but their innards are really collections of ABSTRACTIONS. Definitions are made by taking a lot of specific datapoints (uses of a word in context) …

Slide 5: … and averaging them out to a more general meaning.

Slide 6: This may seem really obvious to YOU … [note: this is my favorite Flickr image EVER]

Slide 7: But many people think that lexicographers just "decide" what a word means. Nope! That would be really hard work … it's easier (and more accurate) to look at examples of use.

Slide 8: What can you tell about this word [pirgate] from these examples? Well, I bet you know it's a verb, that you can do it TO something, and that it's something you might not want to do. This is all information you know implicitly because you know how English works.

Slide 9: How about now? Now you know this use is a noun, and it's a kind of person — the kind of person you don't want to be, probably.

Slide 10: The truth is that "meaning" is created by lots of little points of data, in the same way that persistence-of-vision effects are created by lots of little points of light. A diffuse set of data can look pretty solid if it moves fast enough …

Slide 11: But you really do have to have ENOUGH data for this persistence-of-vision effect to work. If I say a guy is wearing a tux and holding a martini, is he a waiter, or is he James Bond? You don't have enough data to tell.

Slide 12: So lexicographers in their labs try to distill all those usage data points into high-octane liquid definitions.

Slide 13: Now, if you want to brew your own, and want a lot of examples of use, there are more places than ever to try to find them …

Slide 14: Although it doesn't work for every word … (especially not 'pirgate', since I made it up).

Slide 16: And, of course, the examples you DO find might not be helpful.

Slide 16: The big question, though, isn't really WHERE to find enough examples — that's pretty straightforward. The big question is: if we agree that dictionary definitions are abstractions of meaning, is there a better way to represent those abstractions than this:

Slide 17: … the boring old print dictionary?

Slide 18: Could we show relationships between examples in a less-linear way?

Slide 19: Could we convey those abstractions in a more powerful way?

Slide 20: That's the problem I'm working on every day … [go visit my blog, yadda yadda, big plug for Creative Commons and the awesome nice sharing people on Flickr.]
(All my presentations are Creative Commons-sharealike, by the way, so if you ever want to remix me into a rap song or create a dictionary-talk novel or whatever, go right on ahead. If you see me speak somewhere and want a copy of my slide deck, just email and ask.]
And that's what I talked about at Ignite last Thursday. More or less. I didn't make any notes, so this is from what I remember of what I said off the top of my head!

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Tonight, Chicago Ignite


I completely forgot to post that I'm talking tonight at the Chicago Ignite!
I'll be talking about dictionaries. (Whoa! Surprised you there, did I?) I'll also be bringing the estrogen to the geek potluck (in other words, I'm the only woman speaking).
It's at the Debonair Social Club, 1575 N. Milwaukee Ave. Event starts at 6 p.m., I'm talking at the end of the first block (so close to 9 p.m.)
If you're Chicago-local, hope to see you there! (If you're not Chicago-local, it's not too late to move here, y'know. I mean, it is for TONIGHT, but not in the larger context of your life plan. I'm just sayin'.) Don't let the four inches snowfall predicted for this evening put you off, or anything.

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I finally found a use for Twitter

Don't get me wrong — I loved the *idea* of Twitter, I just didn't think a constant stream of messages such as
12:02 "Reading New Scientist"
12:11 "Still reading New Scientist"
12:45 "In front of computer, reading the Internet"
would be interesting. To me, or to anyone else.
But (and there's always a 'but'), Twitter is perfect for a task that I've been having trouble managing: immediate new-word filing. If I'm at my desk, sure, I can append any new-to-me words I find in my reading to a file. And if I'm out and about, I can make a note on my Treo, or in my Moleskine. But they aren't all in the Same Place, and so consolidation has to happen. (Note: I am not so good — actually, frakkin' terrible — at consolidation, of any sort.)
Twitter lets me post a WOTD (word-of-the-day) from anywhere, and then it is nicely stored ALL IN ONE PLACE. The limit of 140 characters per 'tweet' keeps me from rambling on and on. And it's semi-public (you can follow my messages if you like, I'm emckean on Twitter) which allows for the possibility of feedback.

If you really want a reliable, highly structured WOTD — my Twitter feed is not for you. (What you want is Double-Tongued Dictionary.) But if you just want to ride shotgun while I read, go ahead and add me to your "follow" list.
If *you* want to do the same thing with the words you notice, go ahead and use the tag "wotd:" — Twitter has a 'track' function, so if you prefix your messages with this tag, I'll be able to follow your new words easily. Fun, no? (BTW, Twitter is free.)
I'll try to keep my Twitter feed just for the WOTDs — although a few rollerskating or "seeing-cool-music" tweets might make it through. Just a warning.

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