Talkin' dictionaries at Google.
February 17, 2007 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I know you people like words and language, and I know you like Google, so when I found a clip of Erin McKean giving a talk about dictionaries at Google, I thought "Normally, I wouldn't watch a 54-minute video of someone giving a talk, but this one was really interesting, and maybe my fellow MeFites will think the same thing." (Be sure and stick around for the Q&A session at the end; Google people, as you might expect, ask really interesting questions.) Erin McKean is not only the editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary, she's got a dressmaking blog. And if you don't feel like watching a video right now, here's a transcript of an hour-long online chat at Wordsmith.Org from a couple years ago. (Video link via Taccuino di traduzione.)
posted by languagehat (34 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, of course there are words that bug me ... but long ago I realized that I shouldn't correct people unless they asked me to!

I like Ms. McKean already.

Oh, and from her Wiki page:

McKean's Law is one of the alternate names for Skitt's law: “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.”

Ok, now I love Ms. McKean. Thanks, languagehat!
posted by melissa may at 7:36 AM on February 17, 2007

McKean is cool! Thanks for posting to her, LanguageHat. or languageHat? or languagehat?
posted by etaoin at 7:56 AM on February 17, 2007

Her Secret Lives of Dresses (on A Dress A Day) are nothing short of brilliant. I'll look forward to hear her talk.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:12 AM on February 17, 2007

I have no use for language stuff but the dressmaking site is marvy
posted by Postroad at 8:22 AM on February 17, 2007

I'm confused by the OED definition of erinaceous, mentioned in the Google video. First, it has a broken cross-reference to "herinacious", which doesn't have an entry. Second, the quotations field just says "In mod. Dicts.". Is inclusion in another dictionary justification, by itself, for including a word? Where did the first dictionary to define erinaceous get it from? Google lists some companies named erinaceous, but I can't see any 'proper' uses of it. Is this some lexicographers' in-joke?
posted by matthewr at 8:25 AM on February 17, 2007

I have no use for language stuff

*chuckle* Yeah, me neither. (Thanks for the link, l-hat.)
posted by sleevener at 8:35 AM on February 17, 2007

She's an acquaintance of my wife, known each other for years. One day, she mentions that she needs a short article on video games for a book she's putting out, and next thing you know I'm drafted into writing it.

She really is as nice as she sounds.

The one thing about her that really scares me is that she knew as a kid that she wanted to be a linguist, and she has never deviated from that. Meanwhile, I'm moving towards middle age without ever using my college major or minor once in the working world.
posted by dw at 8:51 AM on February 17, 2007

What are the differences between a "talk", a "lecture", a "speech", and an "advertising campaign"?
posted by davy at 9:26 AM on February 17, 2007

dunno man, what does the dictionary say?
posted by the cuban at 9:38 AM on February 17, 2007

One has notes; one has slides; one has talking points; and one has John Hodgeman as a anthropomorphic PC.
posted by cortex at 9:39 AM on February 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this.
posted by ztdavis at 9:46 AM on February 17, 2007

The introduction here was much better than the intro on the video itself. Buffy should not ever be mentioned as the basis of a friendship... ew.

Luckily it gets better from there, but CURSE THE VILE POOPFACE THAT CUT THE VIDEO FOR INTERWEB.
posted by phylum sinter at 9:51 AM on February 17, 2007

Huh, they put "copyright traps" in the dictionary to detect when it's copied? Seems strange.

Also what is this "applied minds" company she's talking about.
posted by delmoi at 10:00 AM on February 17, 2007

Okay, how can you not be enamored of someone with the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary on their CV? Good listening. Thanks, 'hat!
posted by steef at 10:09 AM on February 17, 2007

"There are no pants in space"

consider my mind officially blown

What a lovely talk. I love going to public lectures, especially with a like-minded people, what an agreeable way to spend one's time. Too bad I never do it these days. I'll have to remedy that.

I was thrilled to find out that Apple's Dictionary was the New Oxford American Dictionary, I had stupidly assumed it was a poor in-house production so I never used it. Now I will use it all the freakin' time especially after I looked up "your" and the second definition made me all awwww:

2 belonging to or associated with any person in general : the sight is enough to break your heart.

I was slightly bothered that she kept saying "the dictionary" after talking about how there was no such thing as "the dictionary." But then I pulled my head out of my own ass and realized that this was just common usage.

Finally, I just managed to shock myself with my own nerdery. When she talked about how first ladies had to be famous to get in I thought "yeah, Eleanor Roosevelt gets in but not Abigail Fillmore." Then I thought "Abigail Fillmore?! Where did that come from? Please, oh God, tell me that I just made that up and don't actually know the name of Millard Fillmore's wife." I googled, and then thought "OHMYGODIMTHEBIGGESTNERDTHATEVERLIVED"
posted by Kattullus at 10:28 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

What are the differences between a "talk", a "lecture", a "speech", and an "advertising campaign"?

Google brings in guest lecturers for their employees and then puts the video on the web so other people can watch it. I suppose it is advertising in a sense for how great Google is.
posted by smackfu at 10:33 AM on February 17, 2007

Somewhere around minute 30 she says something about being at some conference or other: "...I don't know what I was doing there, everyone at this conference was so much cooler than me..."

After watching this I find it impossible to imagine any sizable collection of people cooler than her. I suspect the total number of people matching that description to be vanishingly small. At least for any definition of cool I'd find remotely useful. Thanks, languagehat!
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:05 AM on February 17, 2007

Awesome post languagehat, just my cup of tea. :)

Erin McKean is a delightful speaker. Her articulate, wry humor reminds me a bit of Roz Chast and the fun neologism site, Verbotomy.

"Being in the dictionary is not a badge of honor. People aren't limited to words I've managed to capture and pin down. A dog doesn't have to be registered with the American Kennel Association to be a dog. It still fetches your slippers; it just isn't pedigreed."

Erin McKean, Wikipedia entry.

I've met a couple of other likeable, witty lexicographers, Bergen Evans and Lobsang Lhalungpa.

You had me at "erinaceous".

Love her dressmaking blog. A treat of a post, thank you.
posted by nickyskye at 11:16 AM on February 17, 2007

Okay, playing around with the Apple Dictionary, I came across something that made me all groan, from the definition of Iceland: "Icelandic name [for Iceland is] Island." No it's not, it's Ísland. Furthermore, it's Reykjavík, not Reykjavik. It doesn't bother me in the slightest when people write it the without the accent marks*, but both forms should really be mentioned in a dictionary. And while I'm at it, their etymology for Reykjavík, "from Icelandic rejkja ‘smoky,’ referring to the steam from its many hot springs" is wrong wrong wrong. First of all, there is no word such as "rejkja." There is the word reykja, which means 'to smoke.' The word in the first part of Reykjavík isn't the verb, however, but the noun. Reykjavík is compound word made from reykur (smoke) and vík (a small bay). Reykja is the plural possessive. Reykjavík means 'bay of smokes.' Back in the day reykur could mean smoke as well as steam, and that is indeed what it refers to, making at least that part of their etymology correct.

Now, can someone check a physical copy of The New Oxford American Dictionary to see if all this is just something that happened when Apple made their version, or if it's like that also in the book.

So who do I pester write to?

*I don't bother with accent marks when I don't have access to an Icelandic keyboard setup or am too lazy to go to Gate2Home.
posted by Kattullus at 11:18 AM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Buffy should not ever be mentioned as the basis of a friendship... ew.

You should go tell them that yourself. I'm sure they'll appreciate it.
posted by dw at 11:43 AM on February 17, 2007

Thanks languagehat. I loved those metaphors at the end: online dictionary use is a commando raid, where you swoop in from a helicopter dropline, snatch the quarry and whoosh back out again; whereas using the printed dictionary was more of an overland territorial acquisition and serendipititious journey.
posted by peacay at 11:45 AM on February 17, 2007

Now, can someone check a physical copy of The New Oxford American Dictionary

I'm afraid the same mistake is there as well. By all means let them know; here's their contact page. All reference books contain errors, and NOAD, being (as she says) only in its second edition and still a baby in dictionary terms, probably contains more than most. I've been sending them in as I find them (e.g., the Russian name of Ganja, the second city of Azerbaijan, is given as Gyandzhe rather than Gyandzha). They will definitely welcome corrections.
posted by languagehat at 12:38 PM on February 17, 2007

There is some seriously awesome stuff going on at Google based on the many great talks in this Author Series and the Techtalks. Our leader linked to this one a while back. It's a guy that is simultaneously working on an incredible way to index all images on the internet via an addicting game and a theory of fun in general. How do they get any work done at Google???
posted by ontic at 1:37 PM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

After watching the first half of the video, I would gladly devote the rest of my life to serving her hand and foot.
posted by ontic at 1:50 PM on February 17, 2007

Heh... in the Apple Dictionary ganja is just given as a slang term for marijuana, while the city is just under Gyandzhe and Gäncä.

Thanks for the contact info.
posted by Kattullus at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2007

... I would gladly devote the rest of my life to serving her hand and foot.

... on a bed of frisée, perhaps?
posted by rob511 at 2:53 PM on February 17, 2007

Ok, "wait on", but if she wants frisée, so be it.
posted by ontic at 3:15 PM on February 17, 2007

Erin also publishes a fun quarterly linguistics magazine called Verbatim. Everyone in this thread should subscribe!
posted by nicwolff at 3:17 PM on February 17, 2007

You only catch a glimpse of her skirt, but still, knowing she made it is pretty cool. I've loved her blog for a long time.
posted by padraigin at 3:33 PM on February 17, 2007

Thank you languagehat! That's the last thing I needed to tip me into becoming a falconer.
posted by hindmost at 4:53 PM on February 17, 2007

I think I have a new Intarweb crush. My not-so-inner word nerd is, uh. Yeah. This post was up my alley.

I usually watch at least some of the hour-long talk type videos that got posted here. This is one of the few that I watched the whole way through beginning to end, no pausing to go do something else for a bit.
posted by sparkletone at 5:17 PM on February 17, 2007

The other thing I meant to mention: There's a number of hilariously quotable lines in this talk. Some mentioned above, my yet-unmentioned favorite:

"The one high point, I think, of traumatic brain injury is that you read all the books you loved again for the first time."
posted by sparkletone at 6:06 PM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

That was interesting, thanks for posting this.
posted by nostrada at 8:01 PM on February 17, 2007

Thanks for the fun post!

I am disappointed to find no evidence of a CANOE website. Where should one disseminate completely made-up etymologies but the internet? Shame on you, CANOE, shame.
posted by Drop Daedalus at 5:46 AM on February 18, 2007

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