Words occupy so much of my waking life that dictionaries are also devotional texts for me. As I become less dependent on traditional books and print media and more involved with web tech and digital publication, my desire to find a truly great dictionary web app grows.
Dictionary.com does the job in a very straightforward way, as does using a “define: term” search in Google (s goog), but I always felt something was missing, and it wasn’t clear what that was until I recently stumbled upon Wordnik. With the simple but boastful tagline “All the words” I was understandably expecting a lot from the new dictionary web application. What more could I really expect from a dictionary, though, and what more could Wordnik possibly deliver?
You don’t have to, but with Wordnik, the option is there to sign up and become a registered member. Doing so allows you access to additional features, ones that resemble the features of social networking sites. You can create and curate word lists, comment on definitions, tag words with relevant terms, record your own pronunciations and track your search history. Also, you can use Facebook Connect to sign in, so you don’t even need to create a new profile.
Registering also allows to you to edit your profile, which you can make publicly visible. So far, there’s not much info you can share via the profile, but it is an interesting way to find out about other users, especially if they actually take the time to curate lists and assign words as favorites.
You can also comment on the profiles of people. It seems like this would be useful for having word-related back and forth conversations, especially since there’s built-in custom code for linking to words and to the comments pages of words.
The People’s Dictionary
Clicking on “Zeitgeist” at the top of the Wordnik interface takes you to a page that tracks the latest activity on the site, and its here that you can see how the app is more than just another dictionary web site. You can tell what terms have been recently added to lists, check out open lists (which can be edited by any user), view comments and check out user-recorded pronunciations, and see some interesting statistics about the past week’s activity.
Of course, as with every site with user-generated content, not everything people add to Wordnik is useful. There’s some spam, some flaming — and some questionable words and definitions. That said, it’s a far more accurate representation of the living language than is Dictionary.com, or other more traditional dictionary web sites.
Statistics, tags, examples, constantly updated Twitter and Flickr streams, and an ongoing, on-site conversation about words, their usage and their meaning provide not only a comprehensive look at how we define things, but about how fluid that definition is. Whether you’re a copy editor or a linguistics student, there’s something on Wordnik for you.
A Better Word
If you’re trying to find la mot juste, you can depend on your old paper sources, or the online versions of those traditional tomes. On the other hand, Wordnik is an interesting alternative that not only provides you with up-to-the minute definitions and usages, but also makes you complicit in language making in a very real and immediate sense.
While the social aspect may not lead to the most efficient work process, it is a welcome and truly useful distraction. Language is not created in a vacuum, nor does it exist in one, and Wordnik is the first dictionary site I’ve see that not only acknowledges but embraces that. There’s still more potential in web technologies regarding dictionaries, but for now, if words are important to your work, you should make a habit of frequenting this site.
What other features would you like to see on a dictionary site?