Wordnik & Urban Dictionary changing how we think about language, redefining meaning

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

“At Wordnik, we believe, like Humpty Dumpty, that words mean what we want them to mean.”

I wrote a piece this week that I really enjoyed reporting. It’s less about journalism and more about the fluidity of  language and how the meaning of words changes over time.

I spoke with editors from Merriam-Webster, Wordnik and Urban Dictionary, who all have different outlooks on how words should be defined. At Merriam-Webster, it can take years for a word to make it into the dictionary. At Wordnik, the editors believe that words mean what we want them to mean, and that neologisms should be recognized immediately. And at Urban Dictionary, anyone can define a word, and some words have hundreds of definitions. (“Hipster,” for instance, has about 325 definitions.)

I like the idea of having a traditional dictionary to see the etymology of words, but I also love seeing how other words and “slang terms” come into being, even if they never make it into a traditional dictionary. What’s your take?

Here’s the intro to my story:

I’m a word nerd. I like learning the etymology of words and seeing how language changes over time. So I was intrigued when comedian Harris Wittels coined the term “humblebrag” and when Weird Al Yankovic used the word “kardash” to describe a unit of time measuring 72 days. Would “humblebrag” and “kardash” become mainstream, I wondered, and would they ever show up in a traditional dictionary?

As old words take on new meanings and new words emerge, questions about the fluidity of language and the meaning of words become more complicated — and more interesting. Now, thanks to sites like Urban Dictionary and Wordnik, we can track words as they evolve and see how they carry different meanings for different people at different points in time.

Click here to read the rest of it.