Sunday, August 19, 2012

Video: The Joy of Lexicography (Erin McKean)

In the most recent post, I discussed the minimal reference to studying etymology allocated by the Common Core State Standards, and I attempted to make a case for spending some time on little word histories anyway, regardless of the Standards.

Today, a related topic -- lexicography.  Courtesy of TED Talks, I am excited to share Dr. Erin McKean's entertaining yet educational presentation on the nature of words, dictionaries, and lexicography, in general. This video lasts about 15 minutes, but it felt like 5, at least for me. Lots of laughter and jolly good word fun. Published in 2007, it's like a good book--even better the second time.

In the video below, Erin makes the case that a paper dictionary limits the amount of words that can "fit in the pan" (the book). She argues that in a digital environment there is no limit to the number of words that could fit. So, if not spatial constraints, why should a word be included in a dictionary? According to Erin, because we LOVE and USE the word. In The Joy of Lexicography, she says:
People say to me, "How do I know if a word is real?" You know, anybody who's read a children's book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn't make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real.
Applications for older students: The video is suitable for older students. Teachers could share it when discussing the limitations of a paper dictionary, the rise of new media,  the legitimacy of words, the joy of word play and creative expression, etc.

Jamie's Journey: The Savannah (Ebbers)
Applications for younger children: Encourage children to invent new words, and let them know that you are interested in the words they use, whether new or old. One way to encourage word coinage is by reading the chapter book Frindle. (I'm calling my pen a "frindle" by gum, no matter what  the dictionary says!) Frindle is best suited for grades 4-5. Likewise, for grades K-3, in Jamie's Journey: The Savannah, I use the word dreamer in an unusual way. (Image text: "With his mat on his back and his dreamer unfurled, Jamie journeys through town to the end of the world.") This word lends itself to questions like "What is our dreamer, where is our dreamer, and how important is it, to have a dreamer?

Why bother? Word coinage and discussions about the dictionary encourage metalinguistic awareness, which in turn fosters comprehension. Also, word coinage is one aspect of word consciousness, one of the four components of a robust vocabulary program (Graves, 2006). This type of instruction is important for a number of reasons, including motivational and metacognitive aspects of learning to read, write, and otherwise express ourselves.

Courtesy of TED Talks, Erin McKean, The Joy of Lexicography (~15 minutes).
(Give the video a moment to load, or see it directly at this link.)

Erin McKean, lexicographer, is the CEO and inspirational force behind one of my favorite new and interactive dictionaries, Wordnik. This digital dictionary provides examples of contextualized word usage from Twitter, etc., word images from Flickr, and all the basic stuff a traditional dictionary offers. In addition, Wordnik encourages us (students, too) to contribute new words and new uses for old words.

Caution: A reader recently advised caution when sending students to the Wordnik site. Depending on the word -- in her case, explicit -- Wordnik may yield inappropriate images and quotations.


  1. Matt Brady8/20/2012

    We have planned a back to school professional development day around this website. Vocabulogic is one of the most useful educational sites available. Wanted you to know!
    Matt Brady

  2. Thank you, Matt! Very kind of you! I hope your inservice day goes well. This website is certainly a joint effort, isn't it.


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