I love words. I’ve always had an affinity for words; knowing them, defining them, and using them, especially in unusual ways. I enjoy using 50 cent words as we called them when we were kids – those big words that people rarely use – secure in the knowledge that I also knew the simpler way to say the same thing. And I’ve always enjoyed adding to my vocabulary and playing with words with friends (though I don’t actually play Words With Friends).
I’ll credit my parents for helping me to develop that skill; they taught me to read by reading the newspaper, and my family have always been voracious readers.
Sadly, my idea of humor is often to note that when someone says that “their head is literally exploding”, that they actually mean to say that their head is exploding “figuratively” rather than “literally”, though it was actually a friend who started that one. (At least I hope that they mean figuratively; it is far less messy.) And another friend and I play a game where we converse using as many linguistically similar words in a row as we can. Ok, I don’t get out much.
So I was pleased that the very first thing I read this year was a New York Times article about Wordnik, an online dictionary that defines and offers usage for everything, rather than just those words accepted by lexicographers:
No modern-day Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster ponders each prospective entry there. Instead, automatic programs search the Internet, combing the texts of news feeds, archived broadcasts, the blogosphere, Twitter posts and dozens of other sources for the raw material of Wordnik citations, says Erin McKean, a founder of the company.
Then, when you search for a word, Wordnik shows the information it has found, with no editorial tinkering. Instead, readers get the full linguistic Monty.
My test word (yes, I actually have a test word) is irregardless. We all learned at one point or another that irregardless is not an accepted English word, being instead an improper way of saying regardless, but Wordnik defines it nonetheless. Strangely, as the Corpus of Contemporary American English, 1990-2011 suggests, several otherwise reputable journalistic organizations didn’t seem to get that particular memo and use the word anyway, so it’s probably a good idea that it is well defined.
To me, vocabulary is fun, and it is an admirable goal to expand one’s vocabulary. And Wordnik, especially their Word of the Day via email, is a fun way to do that, as well as an excellent reference in general. You don’t need to use 50 cent words, but knowing them certainly doesn’t hurt.