Lexicographer Erin McKean’s all-time favorite word is erinaceous: pertaining to the hedgehog family. She also likes outrecuidance (presumption, arrogance, self-conceit) and waffogato (a waffle-shaped block of ice cream doused in maple syrup espresso).
But such words are more than ornaments for dazzling dinner-party guests. “They can be beautiful. But that’s not their purpose,” McKean says. “Words do things.”
And according to McKean, those who tack on the disclaimer “I know it’s not a real word” are “giving up one of their inalienable rights as English speakers: the right to create new words as they see fit.” McKean wants people to think of words as keys that can unlock troves of fascinating information.
It’s like a GPS device of the English language.
— Erin McKean
The problem is that paper dictionaries can contain only so much data — and as the Internet spawns the biggest boom in publishing since the invention of the printing press, dictionaries can’t keep pace with the oodles of new words entering the lexicon every day.
So in 2009, McKean created Wordnik, an online dictionary that evolves with language itself. Anyone can add new words and definitions, tag words with related meanings, view real-time search results for words from Twitter and Flickr and even discover the number of Scrabble points each word is worth — all on one page. Seeing words in multiple contexts and navigating how they relate to other words boosts understanding. “It’s like a GPS device of the English language,” McKean says.
Like Google’s Web crawlers, Wordnik’s software constantly assimilates newly published digital content. New words and word associations get added to the Word Graph, building up the database that powers the site. Wordnik now has billions of words, including chillax, srsly, and bestie — words often dismissed as “not real.” To McKean, it’s a false distinction. ”If you love a word, use it. That makes it real.”
Four years after launching Wordnik, McKean used the Word Graph as the foundation of a news discovery app called Reverb. Reverb follows contextual clues in the words of an article to come up with recommendations for other stories that users might find interesting — with a high degree of accuracy. “If you know more about words than anyone else, when you look at a news article — a set of words — you should be able to make a better judgment of ‘aboutness,’” says McKean.
McKean, 42, sports horn-rimmed glasses and Bettie Page bangs, and speaks in a bright yet hushed librarian tone. A North Carolina native, she dreamed of working on dictionaries since she was 8, when she “read anything that came into the house,” including the Wall Street Journal issues her father brought home from his sales job.
When you look at a news article — a set of words — you should be able to make a better judgment of ‘aboutness.’
One day, she read about how the Oxford English Dictionary would likely miss its publishing deadline by about 21 years. “I had never really thought that anybody made dictionaries,” she says. “The idea that there was a whole job devoted to finding cool words and collecting them seemed perfect.”
Years later, McKean got her start as a University of Chicago linguistics student working on the Oriental Institute’s Assyrian dictionary, underlining words in different-colored pencils, depending on what sources referenced them, like Babylonian cuneiform tablets.
McKean went on to create children’s dictionaries, using her basic coding-class skills to update the dictionary. “It was so fun,” she says. ”I realized that we were starting to have the tools to make dictionaries bigger, better, faster, stronger.”
If you love a word, use it. That makes it real.
— Erin McKean
Just a few years later, she became editor-in-chief of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Meanwhile, people outside the dictionary publishing world kept asking her the same question: Why is one word in the dictionary and not another?
McKean voiced her frustration at a 2007 TED Talk, arguing that lexicographers should be less like traffic cops who decide which words to “let through,” and more like fishermen: “I want to throw my big net into the deep blue ocean of English and see what marvelous creatures I can drag up from the bottom.” She suggested a citizens’ science approach, allowing anyone to collect words and meanings.
”After her TED Talk, Roger McNamee, founding partner of venture capital firm Elevation Partners, invited McKean to lunch. “What would it take to make a giant online dictionary?” he asked. After nearly a year of brainstorming, they built a four-person staff and launched Wordnik.But building the world’s most extensive online dictionary wasn’t an end in itself. “If you truly believe the dictionary is a model of the English language, then you use that model to do things, to make predictions,” McKean says.
Her news app Reverb is sort of like Wordnik “turned inside out.” When you look up a word on Wordnik, the Word Graph pulls in related words and sorts them into different groups — such as synonyms, or words that rhyme with your word. But when you click on topics on Reverb, the Word Graph grabs articles containing words that fall under these topics. In both cases, the word becomes a discovery tool for locating more of what will interest you.
McKean is interested in seeing how the iPhone version of Reverb delivers relevant content during short “in-between” moments of the day.
Opening the Reverb app takes you to a wall of topics. McKean, co-founder of the company (based in San Mateo, California), says Reverb “learns” from the topics that users click on, listing the most personalized recommendations to the far left on the iPad version, or at the top on the iPhone.
McKean knows she’s competing against more established news aggregator apps, like Flipboard and Paper. And like any new app, Reverb still has a few kinks to smooth out: Articles can show up multiple times on the article wall, and the formatting is sometimes distorted.
“Erin is a deeply creative businessperson,” says Sarah Milstein, CEO and co-founder of Lean Startup Productions. But “whether Reverb and Wordnik have positive futures is a matter of whether [her] team is able to experiment in a disciplined way to find customer value.”
McKean now lives in San Mateo, California, with her husband, who works in the nonprofit financial sector, and her 14-year-old son, an avid Minecraft player. On her downtime, she loves bumping hip-hop, especially Kanye West, Common and Schoolboy Q, among others. “People are surprised, even with all the figurative, inventive use of language,” she says. “You should be surprised when someone who loves words doesn’t love hip-hop.”
The wordsmith is also a seamstress, sewing flouncy 1950s-style dresses and writing her fashion blog, A Dress a Day. She started sewing when she was 12, and her novel, The Secret Lives of Dresses, is being made into a movie in Australia.
McKean treats her dressmaking just like she does her lexicography, says Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. ”That’s what I love about her: how seriously she takes her fun. She turns what gives her pleasure — patterns, design, words — but then just brings a joy to it. Calling it a hobby isn’t sufficient, but calling it professional makes it seem like it’s work. She doesn’t make anything seem like work. That’s a pretty good measure of a successful person. That’s a great model for everybody.”
Why you should care
Erin McKean isn’t just crusading for creative language — her news app is revolutionizing how we scan the Web to find its most engaging stories.