Posts Tagged ‘dictionaries’

Wordnik Gem

Posted: 12 March 2010 in Uncategorized
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Erin McKean

I’ve had my eye on Wordnik for a while, since finding out the excellent lexicographer Erin McKean co-founded it.  Wordnik is the most comprehensive dictionary in the known universe.  Srsly!

They released an API a few months ago and I quickly threw together a gem wrapping it, based on HTTParty.  Tonight I updated the gem for version 3 of the API and simplified it to just a single class with the bare essentials.  You can perform pretty much all of the API calls and get a hash of the results.  It’s nothing major, but will give you a chance to play around with the Wordnik API with almost no work on your part (aside from getting yourself a key).  This change breaks backwards compatibility completely, sorry.

Example usage:

w.define('gem') # => big hash with all the definitions
w.examples('gem') # => example sentences using "gem"

You can grab the gem off of RubyGems or you can take a look at the source on github.  As always, please let me know if you encounter any problems.

I hereby declare that the word literally has not lost its meaning, despite a rash of rumors to the contrary.

What would it even mean for a word to lose its meaning? A word can change from one meaning to another, certainly.  Maybe you could argue that a word that has dropped out of usage has lost its meaning..

You hear complaints of that sort all the time, but what is being missed is the fact that language is fluid. Meanings evolve as the need arises (and there are many kinds of  needs). Speakers each carry a somewhat different representation of the language in their heads, and once like-minded speakers agree on a novel usage and adapt it into their own representations, language evolves.

The debate over literally is literally nothing new. Turning to old faithful, the American Heritage dictionary:

Usage Note: For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example “The 300,000 Unionists … will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself—if it did, the word would long since have come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively”—but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

So literally has been known to be a general intensive for quite some time. Why the fuss now?

Twitter is my new linguistic data collection engine, btw.  Just some of the multitude of great results:

References, “literally,” in The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Source location: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Available: Accessed: January 27, 2009.

According to the somewhat suspect (suspect by default, since I haven’t evaluated it otherwise):

1. (noun) computational linguistics
the use of computers for linguistic research and applications

This particular definition came to my attention thanks to a Google alert and I thought it was about the shortest definition of computational linguistics I’ve ever seen. It might not be a half bad definition for telling friends and family what you do when you don’t want to see them go all glassy-eyed and start drooling on themselves. It’s certainly not a satisfying definition, though.

It’s a morning of fun new words! First I hear greenwashing on the Today Show, which Donna likes to watch while she eats brekkie. Then, Language Log delights me with nanoblahblah, henchgoon, and celebufreak. Erin McKean, the Dictionary Evangelist, twitters words of the day so I also got a nice infusion when I examined her twitter feed for the past week or so. A few selections I particularly like that she found: paracosm, yostelumpet, and anthroponymy. And now for the definitions!

  • anthroponymy – the study of the names of human beings [emckean@twitter]
  • celebufreak – a freak with fame (e.g. Kim Kardashian) [Wordlustitude]
  • greenwashing – marketing a product as green when it’s really not [Today show]
  • henchgoon – alternate term for administrative assistant or “assistant of doom” [Wordlustitude]
  • nanoblahblah – very, very tiny nonsense (nanotechnobabble) [Wordlustitude]
  • paracosm – a private imaginary world, esp. made by children to escape harsh circumstances (think Pan’s Labyrinth) [emckean@twitter]
  • yodelumpet – a singing style that combines yodeling and Louis-Armstrong-style trumpet-like sounds [emckean@twitter]

Please note that the twitter links are stable in terms of link permanence, but are unstable in twitter’s ability to serve up the page. So if at first you get a bizarre message with birds, try again. This has also led to the re-discovery of the most excellent Wordlustitude site. I had seen a while ago but for whatever reason didn’t subscribe to it. This has been remedied, and if you like neologisms, I recommend you do the same.


Posted: 4 January 2008 in Uncategorized
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Some random trivia here. In the Masterpiece Theatre version of Jane Eyre, St. John hands Jane a couple books and tells her to begin learning a new language. This was his typically controlling way of telling her she was going to become a missionary with him as well as his wife. Curious about which language she was to be learning, I paused the DVD and found the title was A Dictionary of English to Shosa. Shosa is spelt Xhosa in modern times, and is one of the official languages of South Africa (and spoken by 7.9 million people). In the movie, it is indeed “the Cape” that they would be travelling to and I think South Africa is mentioned elsewhere. I was unable to find any mention of this book on Google.

If anyone knows of any good resources for searching for books from the 19th Century, I’d love for you to leave me a comment with your suggestions. Even more so if you actually find the book.


Posted: 15 December 2007 in Uncategorized
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I have talked about dictionaries in the past, so you might know that I have a certain fascination with them. One of the best things about the interwebs is the ability to access information about just practically anything in a very short time. If someone mentions some sort of literary reference in a chat, one quick jump to Wikipedia and I can instantly be up to speed. Or if someone uses a word I can’t remember or don’t know the definition of, I can pop over to and quickly discover the missing piece of information.

But just how quickly? I timed the following process for five different words:

  1. open a new tab in firefox
  2. enter in the address bar (the address autocompletes, so I’m only type di, down arrow, enter).
  3. enter the word and wait for the definition

This takes about 7 seconds per word. Part of the slowness is the fact that there are about a bazillion ads on Sometimes I start typing but not all of the ads have finished loading so the javascript hasn’t put the focus in the word box. The result is that half the word is missing when the focus finally goes in there and I have to start over. In those cases, I expect the average time jumps up to more like 10-12 seconds. This is also annoying.

Enter Average time per lookup using the above method is 3 seconds. There are no ads. The instant step 2 is done and I start typing, the text box has focus and in under a second after hitting enter the definition is displayed. Beautiful. Plus, I can separate multiple words by commas and get more than one definition at a time, saving me from repeating steps 1 and 2.

Unlike, ninjawords uses Wiktionary. So no longer do I have the research potential of seeing the Indo-European roots of words and there is always the potential for vandalism to seep in and corrupt a particular definition, though that has a low probability. If I need definitions with authority, I can always resort to If I need them with speed for use in fast-paced settings (like in the middle of an IM session), I can use ninjawords.

Phil Barthram recently announced on the ENGLISC mailing list a new Old English translator. For those unfamiliar with Old English, this is not the really cheap malt liquor. This is the grandmother of Modern English (by way of its mother, Middle English and a few others, chiefly Norman French). Whereas an Olde English (the malt liquor) translator might look like this:

“You look pretty.”
“I’m trashed on cheap swill.”

an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) translator looks more like:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrıces weard
Now we should praise the guardian of the kingdom of heaven

This is the first line of Cædmon’s Hymn. Check out the wikipedia page for Cædmon to read the whole nine lines.



Posted: 12 October 2007 in Uncategorized
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I find myself using dictionaries a lot. Because I generally subscribe to the view of language as a fluid construct embedded in the mind of individuals and as an emergent phenomenon of a group of speakers, I don’t believe dictionaries are the final arbiters of correct word usage. In high school, things were different. I remember having arguments over word meanings and then resorting to the dictionary to make claims such as “it can’t mean that” or “that word does not exist.” Now I find those statements to be rubbish. If a group of people uses a word a certain way to communicate (and they understand each other), then that is a correct usage of a real word. This is different than when I say “I sent my check to the university ombudsman” when I meant to say “I sent my check to the university bursar.” This case is an instance of performance failure, where I accidentally used the wrong word.

The dictionary I use most commonly nowadays is Their advantage is the fact that they draw on many different dictionaries simultaneously (though the results are presented separately). You can see the definitions given by Random House, Merriam Webster, American Heritage, WordNet, and a bunch of others. I just noticed today that they have added the Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary. You are given the word in an array of languages including Arabic, Chinese, Korean, French, German, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, Hungarian, etc. Most common European languages are included and a few of the most common Asian languages. Noticeably absent is Swahili, nor is any other language from Africa included. Also included is the Online Dictionary of Computing, which is a nice touch. Look up the word tickle and you find a text editor for the Mac.