Dic Pic: An Intimate Snapshot of How We Use the Online Dictionary

imagesBy(Alex Bayer)

dictionary illustration

I open my computer, alone in my triple room for the first time in hours. Closing the various PDFs of readings I have yet to do and email drafts I’ve been meaning to send, I finally have the privacy to open up the window I’ve been thinking about all day. I look over my shoulder, turn up my screen brightness, and open up…

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition of “paradigm.” What does that word mean?! Whenever I hear it in conversation I nod and act like I don’t mix it up with paragon every time. We all have words like that, that we don’t want to admit that we Google three times a week because for some reason they won’t stick.

Turns out Peter Sokolowski, the Editor at Large at Merriam Webster, is right there with us. Making it his business to see which words people consistently look up, he spends his days piecing together a story about where the English language is headed. Bald, bubbly, and thrilled about lexicography, Sokolowski lit up Levinthal Hall discussing a dry, technical book last Thursday. He brought it to life talking about the human element of the dictionary. In his talk, “The Dictionary as Data: What the Online Dictionary Tells Us About English,” co-sponsored by SLE and the Stanford Humanities Center, he examined what the words we look up say about our culture. When you don’t know a word, he tracks that. When you look up the same words over and over (or never), you step into his study of the way language moves.

Sokolowski began his talk with an abridged history of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Maybe he’s biased, but he credits Daniel Webster with branding American English. Sokolowski claims that Webster, by changing the spellings of British words into new American spellings around 1776, established an American identity through this new vocabulary. Ever since, the ties between cultural progress and dictionary usage have remained close.

Adults look up words we think we know, especially when we hear them used in a surprising way. Often in private, we verify and validate our understanding of these words by looking them up. More than to learn, we use the dictionary to confirm. Sokolowski traces the patterns in word usage surrounding major world events. When a tragedy occurs, the words people look up in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary spike in three waves. He gave the example of 9/11. First, people look up the literal terms surrounding the event: rubble, triage. Then, we search for technical ones: terrorism, jingoism. In the days after, when the damage continues to touch us, come the psychological terms: succumb, surreal. People search for the definition of the latter the most in times of tragedy. We seek to understand the unthinkable through the apparent objectivity of dictionaries.

Peering through a lexical lens, we turn to the dictionary to define the most basic human words: love, marriage, culture. When the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and sparked discussion about gay marriage, look-ups for the dictionary definition of “marriage” topped the charts. “Love” is the number one word searched in the weeks before Valentine’s Day. We want the dictionary to normalize, even prescribe, experiences.

But we forget that the dictionary, a seeming bastion of objective reality, is compiled by people who use language, too. Granted, the editors are people who track word frequency everywhere from novels to road signs and are pro lexicographers. Still, they’re people. Sokolowski and his colleagues, he briefly explained, constantly track how words crop up in English language settings. They all notice patterns. Around late August, when college students sign up for classes, “culture”—a word applied so generously in course descriptions—spikes in search frequency. Around 11 pm every night, scrabble players turn to the Merriam-Webster app to look up “Xi” and “Za.” Correlation may not equal causation, but Sokolowski and his colleagues make careers of connecting these dots. That way, they’ll know when a word like “crossbowsman” can be retired from the dictionary because it’s never used any more. You might imagine that the Merriam-Webster office constantly buzzes as people argue about the minutiae of each word’s definition. But it turns out defining words can be efficient when each definition is based on a diligently maintained corpus of the English language. The office is silent, Sokolowski says, as everyone reads words all day.

We assume the dictionary has the answers, but it needs us to first ask questions. Our culture defines the dictionary and vice versa. Sokolowski and his fellow editors, pegged with telling us what’s up by defining words, look at us to find what the words mean to us. In the intimate act of looking up a word, we tell a piece of wide lexicographical narrative. Setting up linguistic paradigms, Sokolowski traces how with play with them. Para-a-digm, noun \ˈper-ə-ˌdīm\: an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype. I’m not ashamed to admit that I just looked that one up. Peter Sokolowski was going to know anyway.

For funny, enlightening facts about word usage, follow Peter Sokolowski on Twitter @PeterSokolowski

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