TED Talks Every Book Blogger Should Watch: Erin McKean on the Joy of Lexicography

I track down TED Talks that would be of special interest to the book blogging community ... and they become a jumping board for personal musings, including yours!

You love words, right? Every bibliophile does. Erin McKean not only loves words but she compiles them. Into dictionaries. She's one of the people behind those humungous books that I remember having to "visit" in the library when online dictionaries were unheard of. We used to have "find a word in the dictionary" contests ... the faster finder was the winner!

In this talk entitled The Joy of Lexicography, Erin McKean explains how the dictionary as we know it needs to evolve to accommodate our desire for "fishing" rather than "policing."

Note: This talk is about 15 minutes. It's funny too! :)

Erin McKean at approx 0:45:And just by saying double dactyl, I've sent the geek needle all the way into the red. (Laughter) (Applause)But "lexicographical" is the same pattern as "higgledy-piggledy."

Not even a minute in and this lady has spouted out some big fun words already. Are you geeking out already?

EK at approx. 2:30: Well, first of all, I blame the Queen because it's funny. But secondly, I blame the Queen because dictionaries have really not changed. Our idea of what a dictionary is has not changed since her reign. The only thing that Queen Victoria would not be amused by in modern dictionaries is our inclusion of the F-word, which has happened in American dictionaries since 1965.

Fascinating that the dictionary hasn't changed much. (Even more fascinating that the F-word only made it in in 1965! What a state of denial the Queen must've been in!)

While I liked the idea of the dictionary as a child (because just loved books in general), I hated that I had to lug around a mini-version all the time for school because of our dictionary use contests. I was never really very good with finding the words fast enough though! Plus the fact that the mini-version never was as good as the huge one in the library ... there were just less words in it.

Even going online, it's only now that McKean points out the "unclickiness" of the online dictionary that I realize that we're probably not maximizing our technology. Of course, I prefer an online dictionary to the paper one because its so much more easier to actually find a word and even get antonyms, synonyms, and all that jazz.

EK at approx. 4:40: Serendipity is when you find things you weren't looking for, because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult.

Ha! Told ya. Not everyone can master the flip through uber thin pages and look for a word with letters the size of an ant!

I would disagree that "serendipity is dead" if dictionaries go online because the other stuff linked within a page (which probably are mostlyads?) has a potential for serendipity. Why else is being online such a time suck?

I do have some fond memories of discovering new words just flipping through a dictionary. Or just the random find that there are actually a few real words that begin with "aa" when looking up the word "aadvark."

EK at approx. 4:47: [..] Does everyone know the ham butt problem? [..]

After seeing "ham butt problem" I know you're going to watch this entire talk. :)

I love this analogy! It really drives home the point about how society urges us to conform rather than to build our own new worlds, and it's not just limited to dictionaries!

EK at approx. 6:50: The book-shaped dictionary is not going to be the only shape dictionaries come in. And it's not going to be the prototype for the shapes dictionaries come in.

I've honestly never thought about a dictionary taking any other form. I guess I am so conditioned to what is looks like now that I can't reimagine it any other way.

EK at approx. 8:16: And so people say to me, "How do I know if a word is real?" You know, anybody who's read a children's book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn't make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real.

Speaking of children's books, I remember wondering about all the "nonsense" words that Dr. Seuss uses in is books. I love it! But I know that some parents aren't too keen on it (yeah, I know some party poopers, sorry if you're one of them) because they justify that this is just plain nonsense and doesn't teach what is "real." Now I appreciate even more how Dr. Seuss encourages creativity and the no bounds idea of what words can be.

I also remember when some Tagalog words made it into the English dictionary and it was a big deal. (For example boondocks is from "bundok" which of course means mountains). I know there are other languages slowly creeping into the English and think it's simply a natural extension of how globalized the world is becoming. What about a language that cuts across countries? It's probably not as far-fetched as we think it to be.

EK at approx. 9:40: Library of Congress: 17 million books, of which half are in English. If only one out of every 10 of those books had a word that's not in the dictionary in it, that would be equivalent to more than two unabridged dictionaries.

And I find an un-dictionaried word -- a word like "un-dictionaried," for example -- in almost every book I read. What about newspapers? Newspaper archive goes back to 1759, 58.1 million newspaper pages. If only one in 100 of those pages had an un-dictionaried word on it, it would be an entire other OED. That's 500,000 more words. So that's a lot. And I'm not even talking about magazines. I'm not talking about blogs -- and I find more new words on BoingBoing in a given week than I do Newsweek or Time. There's a lot going on there.

Mind blown.

Read it again. Half a million more words not in the dictionary. I probably made up a word and it was a "real" word and someone had used it before me!

Off the top of my head I can't remember an "un-dictionaried" word. I think I will keep this in the back of my mind when I'm reading now!

EK at approx. 9:40:  Because a word is like an archaeological artifact. If you don't know the provenance or the source of the artifact, it's not science, it's a pretty thing to look at. So a word without its source is like a cut flower. You know, it's pretty to look at for a while, but then it dies. It dies too fast. So, this whole time I've been saying, "The dictionary, the dictionary, the dictionary, the dictionary." Not "a dictionary," or "dictionaries." And that's because, well, people use the dictionary to stand for the whole language.

Interesting that I use "the dictionary" too. Just brainwashed?

I found this talk quite thought-provoking and hope you did too! Did you have any takeaways?

Also, I have a few questions for you all. Feel free to express your opinions.
  1. Do you speak another language and know of any words that made it into the English dictionary?
  2. Have you ever come across and "un-dictionaried word? Do share!
  3. What form do you envision the dictionary taking, aside it from obvious fact that it's on the internet?

Erin McKean's Blog Dictionary Evangelist
Erin McKean on Twitter

(I am not affiliated in any way with TED Talks. Photo for header: unsplash, TED logo from ted.com)

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall