Thursday, February 18, 2010

Paper Is The Enemy Of Words

Thanks to the Twitter hashtag #linguistics, I discovered 5 Must-See TED Talks On Language. It's an interesting collection of short videos from past TED talks (still waiting for most of the 2010 TED talks to be available).

I found Pinker's 2005 talk enjoyable, if a bit conventional for anyone who has spent time in a linguistics department, that is. He runs the gamut of ditransitive/direct object alternation, Gricean maxims, game theory, etc. His key point is that language is a way of negotiating relationships.

But the real gem by far is the 2007 TED talk by Erin McKean, Editor-in-chief of the American Heritage dictionary. She is one of those rare people whose enthusiasm and bright personality is infectious and delightful. Highlights of her talk:

  • Dictionaries are compiled, not carved.
  • Lexicographers get to say fun words like lexicographical = double dactyl like Higgledy Piggledy.
  • Lexicographers are not linguistic traffic cops, they're fisherman.
  • The idea of the dictionary was fixed in the 1800s by the OED (this is bad).
  • "Dictionaries are Victorian design merged with modern propulsion".
  • OMG! She references steampunk at TED (3:47 mark). This is awesome!
  • Bad online dictionaries take away serendipity -- this is bordering on brilliant.
  • She ascends into sublime genius as she explains the ham-butt problem with dictionaries (5:01 mark). 
  • Don't hate bad words, hate bad dictionaries.
  • Paper is the enemy of words (6:12 mark).
  • Interesting analogy: what if biologists only studied cute animals?
  • How do you know if a word is real? Not because it's in a dictionary; rather, a word is real because people use it.
  • Worry less about control, more about description.
  • Undictionaried words. Brilliant.
  • Asking for help is good.
  • "We're missing California from American English." (11:55 mark)
  • "If we can find comets without a telescope, shouldn't we be able to find words?" Preach it sistah!
  • "The internet is made up of words and enthusiasm."
  • Nice point: a word without its context is pretty... pretty useless.
  • In which she uses a word with which I am not familiar, and as yet am unable to discover: synochdocaly or signicdocically or cynicdocically...
  • Right now, dictionaries are imperfect samples, but we could make THE dictionary with ALL the words.
  • Web dictionaries mean we can discard the artificial distinction between good words and bad words.
  • I love this woman.


panoptical said...

Unfamiliar word: synecdochically.

Anonymous said...

Synecdochically. Derived from synechdoche.

Yes, it's a great talk, although it does give the impression that lexicographers have traditionally been expected to make aesthetic decisions about which words are worthy of being dictionaried, when surely the real story involves gathering hard statistical data. That struck me as misleading.

And of course, is Erin's attempt to create the ideal dictionary that she alludes to in the talk.

Without a doubt, Erin would be a fun person to talk to. Among other things, I'd ask for her opinion on what my own invented word, quidjfravzgembtchowlkspynx, should mean. (It's a pronounceable anagram of the alphabet.)

Erin said...

I've met Erin McKean, and she is just that full of infectious great ideas in real life. I may have a bit of a girl-crush.

Chris said...

@panoptical, thanks! It's obvious now that I see the spelling.

@outerhoard, thanks for the pointer to wordnik. I've put her blog into my reader.

@Erin, if i took a course from her, I'd never miss a day.

Thanks for the comments all!

panjandrum said...

All synecdoche is metonymy, but not all metonymy is synecdoche.

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