Merriam-Webster Goes Interactive Online
The dictionary includes reader comments under its definitions and seeks to engage readers on Facebook and Twitter. And it’s not alone as the OED crowdsources science fiction terms. By Russell Working | Posted: October 5, 2011 Miles Kronby is chief digital product officer at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary maker, so naturally he is steeped in words. But even he sometimes runs across a term he doesn’t know, such as gnomon, an obscure word for the pin of a sundial. When he looked it up on the M-W.com website, he checked “Seen & Heard” at the bottom, where readers answer the question, “What made you want to look up gnomon? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).” They refer to history and mathematics, and cite James Joyce’s Dubliners—“all in all, a really interesting and enriching addition to the definition itself,” he says. Merriam-Webster is longer content just to tell you what a word means. It has built in social media elements into every word search. Elsewhere on the site, it uses crowdsourcing by asking readers to contribute new words. “Every definition is fundamentally social,” Kronby says.
Over the past year, M-W.com has found new ways to carry out its mission as a descriptive dictionary—one that tells you how English speakers use a word—rather than wagging its finger and prescribing what is right and wrong.
25 million users per month
Roughly 25 million people use the Merriam Webster website every month, says Orly Telisman, director of media relations at Encyclopaedia Britannica, which publishes the dictionary. M-W.com gets more than 100 million page views a month, most of those dictionary look-ups, she says. The majority of its traffic comes from the United States and Canada, but interest is rising among users in China, Japan and India. The public input isn’t just limited to comments on the look-up pages. Merriam-Webster has an open dictionary to which users can submit new words and slang to be reviewed by the 40 staff
lexicographers for possible addition to the definition database, says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large. Unlike a wiki-type dictionary, such as the Urban Dictionary or Wiktionary, Merriam-Webster’s version is vetted by lexicographers to make sure the words are real, and they write the working definition that will appear on this part of its site. “It does serve as a kind of future dictionary as we do look ahead into the next year’s new words,”Sokolowski says. The updating of the citations is done by in-house experts reading and marking up publications, ranging from local newspapers to Wine Spectator, he says. Open dictionary contributors can help: They don’t just introduce neologisms, like bromance, but also point out changes in technical terminology used by scientists and other specialists. Merriam-Webster isn’t alone among dictionaries in using social media tools. The Oxford English Dictionary is using crowdsourcing in the specialized area of science fiction terminology, it has turned to the Internet for help through the website of its editor at large, Jesse Sheidlower.
OED tracks sci-fi jargon
Asking people simply to send in general words to the dictionary tends not to be very useful for OED lexicographers, says Sheidlower. But for a decade the science fiction project has used readers to help track the genre’s nomenclature. “People found enormously useful stuff—many, many thousands of quotes,” he says. “For all the science fiction entries that are edited now, we have this tremendous buildup of data.” Many terms first used in science fiction terms have crossed over into real usage, such as asteroid belt and multiverse. Even those that remain fictional or speculative have crossed into everyday use; consider alien and warp drive, Sheidlower says. For its part, M-W.com also added quizzes “Name That Thing” and “ How strong is your vocabulary?” this summer. There users can take vocabulary exams and post the results onto Facebook and Twitter. A popularity meter shows the most popular lookups over the previous 24 hours, week and four months. Its top-10 lists the most “liked” words of the day. M-W.com’s trend watch highlights spikes in searches for a word, often related to current events. Recently, clemency shot up after Georgia's pardon and parole board denied clemency to Troy
Davis, a death row inmate who was executed the next day. A traditional printed dictionary, of course, can’t track such things. “What Noah Webster couldn’t do, what Ben Johnson couldn’t know, is what words that they worked on were being used as entries,” says Sokolowski, who also tweets about words and the dictionary under his own name. “Because we know on an hourly or daily basis which words are being looked up.” Shaping the content “Seen & Heard” users shape the content viewed by others, and 1,000 people per day comment. One woman explains that she looked up lily-livered because a pirate snarls the term on Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Another user said he’d rushed to the dictionary after he found an old clip in which the columnist Herb Caen quoted his Uncle Mike using the word coprophagous. (Trust us—you’re better off not knowing.) “Everybody who looks up a word, it’s a little story going on,” Kronby says. “Somebody encounters a word, is intrigued by what it means and goes to look it up.” On Facebook, Merriam-Webster posts its word of the day, seeks reader responses to questions, and highlights noteworthy usage. “Wolf in Cheap Clothing: a nice collection of mixed metaphors and malaprops at http://s.m-w.com/n65mGw,” read onepost. The dictionary also posts similar links on its Twitter feed and highlights words of the day, like the recent baksheesh Sokolowski breaks things down further on his Twitter feed. Merriam-Webster sells advertising, but it isn’t trying to bog readers down just to boost page views. It seeks to make information quickly available to those who want a streamlined experience. “Merriam-Webster’s method for generations, for its whole history, is to observe how people use language, and then to report on it,” Kronby says. “A lot of people don’t think of themselves as word buffs, but you sort of can’t not be interested in words if you’re human.”