ALCTS President’s Program with Erin McKean

If you are a quidnunc, the ALCTS President’s Program "Confessions of a Digital Packrat" on Monday, July 1 (10:30 am–12 pm at McCormick Place Convention Center, S105) featuring lexicographer Erin McKean should excite you.[1]  A self-proclaimed “dictionary evangelist,” Erin is a connoisseur of words and enthusiastic about revealing her thoughts on the evolution of the dictionary in the digital age. In anticipation of her talk, ALCTS News recently had an opportunity to email-interview Erin and ask her about her eclectic interests and how she became a digital packrat.

Erin McKean
Erin McKean

ALCTS News: You mentioned in an interview with the Seattle Star that you can trace your interest in words to when you were eight years old.  To what do you attribute your interest in words and language at such an early age and how was it fostered as you grew up?

EM: I really don’t know what exactly made me so interested in words and language, other than that I’ve always been a greedy reader. (If I don’t get to read for at least an hour a day I start to have terrible withdrawal symptoms. And reading email doesn’t count!) I do know what triggered my interest in dictionaries—it was this newspaper article:

The nice thing about being interested in working on dictionaries is that most people have neutral-to-favorable feelings towards them, paired with little-to-no-knowledge about them, which is the sweet spot for encouragement. “So, small child, you would like to work on this thing that I generally approve of, but do not understand the production of? Great! Go for it!” No one knows the hurdles, but everyone thinks that working on dictionaries is, in general, a Good Thing, so you get lots of encouragement.

ALCTS News: Did your study of linguistics prepare to work as a lexicographer?

EM: Well, I nominally studied linguistics, but what I actually did was try to make all my classes about lexicography. If it was even remotely possible to drag dictionaries into a class, I did it. My paper for my feminist theory class was on the acceptance of the term “Ms.”, for instance. Since I work on an online dictionary, the few classes I took in programming have also been extremely helpful, and I wish I’d taken more.

I’ve found that linguists, lexicographers, and coders have something very important in common, and that is a deep curiosity about and interest in systems. We like to put things in categories and then move them around—fun and satisfying on a deep level.

ALCTS News: Your advice to writers is if you like a word, just use it!  Do you feel simila.rly about grammar? Are you open to disregarding rules of grammar?

EM: It’s actually quite difficult to disregard rules of grammar, if by “grammar” you mean the internalized rules we all follow as native speakers of a language. (And that kind of grammar will bend quite a bit before breaking, especially in the service of humor: think of Liz Lemon’s “I want to go to there.” Not entirely grammatical; entirely funny.) But most folks, when they talk about grammar, mean the set of stylistic conventions that mark Standard English—all the stuff you learned in high school about not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with a preposition or the differences between “shall” and “will.” Most of those are more-or-less invented rules— you can tell a grammar rule from a style rule because breaking a grammar rule will make you sound like you’re not making any sense, and breaking a style rule will make you sound (to some people) like you don’t have any class.

I think the most important rule, the rule you should not break, is the rule that says “consider your audience.” If your audience is demanding Standard English of the most conventional sort, and will be dismayed and upset not to get it, think twice about the consequences of breaking those conventions. If your audience expects colloquial, conversational, informal English, think about the consequences of breaking out the “whoms” and “shalls.”

ALCTS News: How would you describe Wordnik?  What inspired you to found Wordnik?   What is the role of Reverb within the Wordnik family?

EM: Keeping with the theme of “remember your audience,” I describe Wordnik in different ways to different people. For wordy people, I tell them that Wordnik has millions and millions of words, and that you can see examples (including tweets and pictures from Flickr!), explore related words, make lists, leave comments, add tags, keep a collection of your favorites, and even record a pronunciation if you’re so inclined. For techie people, I talk about how Wordnik is the biggest dictionary in the world (size matters!) and show off our wonderful APIs, and Swagger, the API framework we’ve open-sourced. For people who just want the highest-level description, I like to say that Wordnik tries to present a 360-degree view of any word by aggregating useful data around each entry, like layers of nacre that form around a grain of sand to create a pearl.

Wordnik really came from my experience in working on traditional dictionaries and thinking “there has to be a better way.” I kept encountering people who wanted more information, and didn’t want to wait for lexicographers to craft definitions—they just wanted anything we could tell them, nicely organized. You can see a similar methodology in technical manuals, where “rough cuts” or “in progress” books on new technologies are available before the finished volume, so you can read along as the authors work out the details (and help with your feedback, too, if you’re so inclined). That’s why Wordnik shows as much data as we can for any word—even if we have no lexical data or examples, we’ll still show you metadata, such as how many people have looked up the same word. Some data is always better than no data.

Early this year, we renamed Wordnik, Inc., to Reverb—mostly because we realized that we had built all this cool technology while making that would be useful in other areas, but when we went to show it to folks, they would say “aren’t you just a big dictionary company?” So we turned the company inside out—Reverb now encompasses all our technology, and is one of the products that Reverb produces.

ALCTS News: Do you think use of conventional dictionaries is declining? Or is there still a place for the old-fashioned dictionary?  Is a generational shift taking place in how people find and use words?  How is Wordnik used?  Are there any demographics that characterize Wordnik users?

EM: All the evidence I have is that the use of print dictionaries is declining in every category, except that of “raw material for craft projects” (seriously, search Etsy for “dictionary”—people are making some really beautiful things out of cut-up dictionaries!) I am a fan of the big, old-fashioned dictionary, but mostly for browsing, not for directed use. I don’t think anyone has really solved the online browsing problem, yet.

If there’s a generational shift in how people look up words, I think it mirrors the generational shift of information tools and discovery techniques across the board—for instance, when my teenage son wants to learn about a concept, he heads straight for YouTube; I tend to head for Google Books or Wikipedia (to check the sources).

From what we can tell, the three main uses of Wordnik can be described as confirmation, exploration, and collection: people use Wordnik to confirm their intuition about what a word means and how it’s used; to explore what a word means, or, more often, to explore words related to the word they looked up; and to create lists (or collections) of words they like, or words about a particular topic or words that share a particular characteristic. The confirmers tend to come from search and are a cross-section of the Internet; the explorers and the collectors tend to be wordier and more book-loving types.

ALCTS News: What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career in linguistics? 

EM: You know that scene in The Graduate, where the blowhard older guy tells Dustin Hoffman, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word … Plastics.”? My word is “coding.” We are now in a world where ninety percent of the interesting language problems are data problems, and if you can’t sling data, you will be at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to work on those problems. Also, I think coding is fascinating, so I like to evangelize for it, especially to women. We need more women coders, and more humanities-focused coders in general!

ALCTS News: What is your role as a member of the board of Credo Reference? 

EM: Basically, I’m happy to answer any questions they have where they think I could be helpful – whether it’s about what might be an interesting reference work to add to their offerings, or whether I could put them in touch with an expert in a field or in a particular technology. I think John Dove is one of the smartest people in reference and I’m just glad to have regular excuses to talk with him!

ALCTS News: I enjoyed reading The Secret Lives of Dresses. Dora’s journey of self-discovery is portrayed with great feeling and your love of fashion is very clear.  Is there an autobiographical element to the book? 

EM: Thank you! Although I grew up in a town very much like my fictional Forsyth, North Carolina, the book is almost anti-autobiographical. Since I always knew what I wanted to do, job-wise, I thought it would be interesting to explore what it would feel like to not have a clear career path. But the dresses described are all ones I’d love to own!

ALCTS News: Your next book The Hundred Dresses: The Most Iconic Styles of Our Times will be published in May. Can you give us a little preview? How did Eleanor Estes children’s book The Hundred Dresses inspire you?

EM: I’ve always loved the Eleanor Estes book, but I remember being a little disappointed when I first read it (at age seven or eight) that she didn’t actually describe a hundred different dresses! But as I got older I realized that Estes made the better choice in leaving the vast bulk of that number to our imaginations... and it got me started thinking about, okay, how many different types of dresses could I imagine? How many of the ones I imagine are also ones that you would imagine? And that led me to the idea that there are dress “archetypes” that we all recognize, and that we all understand as having specific meanings. And after that all that remained was to write them all down, right?

One of my favorites of the dresses I write about in the book is the Anne Shirley dress … from Anne of Green Gables. All her life she’s worn horrible skimpy “wincey” dresses (wincey is a kind of rough cotton/wool blend, sometimes also called linsey-woolsey, but wincey is also how you feel when you wear it).  “This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress. All the orphans had to wear them, you know. A merchant in Hopeton last winter donated three hundred yards of wincey to the asylum. Some people said it was because he couldn’t sell it, but I’d rather believe that it was out of the kindness of his heart, wouldn’t you?” And then for Christmas she gets her fantasy dress—one with puffed sleeves:

Oh, how pretty it was—a lovely soft brown gloria with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck. But the sleeves—they were the crowning glory! Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown silk ribbon.

The Anne Shirley dress is the archetype, I think, of the beautiful, dream-fulfilling dress that you never thought you’d have, but which finally appears. 

ALCTS News: Where does your inspiration for a writing project come from, and do you have a new project, or projects, lined up?

EM: I usually have too many projects lined up! I don’t have anything under contract at the moment … I’m working on a new novel, but it’s still in the inchoate phase. I like Kathleen Norris’s advice on how to write novels: “Get a girl in all kinds of trouble and then get her out.”

ALCTS News: The Twittersphere has already mentioned your presentation in June—of particular concern seems to be what to wear.  Would you have any advice for attendees on suitable attire?

EM: I have a very strict dress code for all of my presentations—attendees should wear something that makes them feel happy and that they enjoy wearing. That’s what I do! 

—Interview by Pamela Bluh, Thurgood Marshall Law Library, University of Maryland

[1] quicnuc, “curious person:” (Viewed 27 April 2013).