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  • Now, have any of y'all ever looked up this word?

  • You know, in a dictionary? (Laughter) Yeah, that's what I thought.

  • How about this word?

  • Here, I'll show it to you.

  • Lexicography: the practice of compiling dictionaries.

  • Notice -- we're very specific -- that word "compile."

  • The dictionary is not carved out of a piece of granite,

  • out of a lump of rock. It's made up of lots of little bits.

  • It's little discrete --

  • that's spelled D-I-S-C-R-E-T-E -- bits.

  • And those bits are words.

  • Now one of the perks of being a lexicographer --

  • besides getting to come to TED -- is that you get to say really fun words,

  • like lexicographical.

  • Lexicographical has this great pattern:

  • it's called a double dactyl. And just by saying double dactyl,

  • I've sent the geek needle all the way into the red. (Laughter) (Applause)

  • But "lexicographical" is the same pattern as "higgledy-piggledy."

  • Right? It's a fun word to say,

  • and I get to say it a lot.

  • Now, one of the non-perks of being a lexicographer

  • is that people don't usually have a kind of warm, fuzzy, snuggly image of the dictionary.

  • Right? Nobody hugs their dictionaries.

  • But what people really often think about the dictionary is, they think more like this.

  • Just to let you know, I do not have a lexicographical whistle.

  • But people think that my job is to let the good words

  • make that difficult left-hand turn into the dictionary,

  • and keep the bad words out.

  • But the thing is, I don't want to be a traffic cop.

  • For one thing, I just do not do uniforms.

  • And for another, deciding what words are good

  • and what words are bad is actually not very easy.

  • And it's not very fun. And when parts of your job are not easy or fun,

  • you kind of look for an excuse not to do them.

  • So if I had to think of some kind of occupation

  • as a metaphor for my work, I would much rather be a fisherman.

  • I want to throw my big net into the deep, blue ocean of English

  • and see what marvelous creatures I can drag up from the bottom.

  • But why do people want me to direct traffic, when I would much rather go fishing?

  • Well, I blame the Queen.

  • Why do I blame the Queen?

  • Well, first of all, I blame the Queen because it's funny.

  • But secondly, I blame the Queen because

  • dictionaries have really not changed.

  • Our idea of what a dictionary is has not changed since her reign.

  • The only thing that Queen Victoria would not be amused by in modern dictionaries

  • is our inclusion of the F-word, which has happened

  • in American dictionaries since 1965.

  • So, there's this guy, right? Victorian era.

  • James Murray, first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

  • I do not have that hat. I wish I had that hat.

  • So he's really responsible for a lot of

  • what we consider modern in dictionaries today.

  • When a guy who looks like that, in that hat,

  • is the face of modernity, you have a problem.

  • And so, James Murray could get a job on any dictionary today.

  • There'd be virtually no learning curve.

  • And of course, a few of us are saying: okay, computers!

  • Computers! What about computers?

  • The thing about computers is, I love computers.

  • I mean, I'm a huge geek, I love computers.

  • I would go on a hunger strike before I let them take away Google Book Search from me.

  • But computers don't do much else other than

  • speed up the process of compiling dictionaries.

  • They don't change the end result.

  • Because what a dictionary is,

  • is it's Victorian design merged with a little bit of modern propulsion.

  • It's steampunk. What we have is an electric velocipede.

  • You know, we have Victorian design with an engine on it. That's all!

  • The design has not changed.

  • And OK, what about online dictionaries, right?

  • Online dictionaries must be different.

  • This is the Oxford English Dictionary Online, one of the best online dictionaries.

  • This is my favorite word, by the way.

  • Erinaceous: pertaining to the hedgehog family; of the nature of a hedgehog.

  • Very useful word. So, look at that.

  • Online dictionaries right now are paper thrown up on a screen.

  • This is flat. Look how many links there are in the actual entry: two!

  • Right? Those little buttons,

  • I had them all expanded except for the date chart.

  • So there's not very much going on here.

  • There's not a lot of clickiness.

  • And in fact, online dictionaries replicate

  • almost all the problems of print, except for searchability.

  • And when you improve searchability,

  • you actually take away the one advantage of print, which is serendipity.

  • Serendipity is when you find things you weren't looking for,

  • because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult.

  • So -- (Laughter) (Applause) -- now, when you think about this,

  • what we have here is a ham butt problem.

  • Does everyone know the ham butt problem?

  • Woman's making a ham for a big, family dinner.

  • She goes to cut the butt off the ham and throw it away,

  • and she looks at this piece of ham and she's like,

  • "This is a perfectly good piece of ham. Why am I throwing this away?"

  • She thought, "Well, my mom always did this."

  • So she calls up mom, and she says,

  • "Mom, why'd you cut the butt off the ham, when you're making a ham?"

  • She says, "I don't know, my mom always did it!"

  • So they call grandma, and grandma says,

  • "My pan was too small!" (Laughter)

  • So, it's not that we have good words and bad words.

  • We have a pan that's too small!

  • You know, that ham butt is delicious! There's no reason to throw it away.

  • The bad words -- see, when people think about a place

  • and they don't find a place on the map,

  • they think, "This map sucks!"

  • When they find a nightspot or a bar, and it's not in the guidebook,

  • they're like, "Ooh, this place must be cool! It's not in the guidebook."

  • When they find a word that's not in the dictionary, they think,

  • "This must be a bad word." Why? It's more likely to be a bad dictionary.

  • Why are you blaming the ham for being too big for the pan?

  • So, you can't get a smaller ham.

  • The English language is as big as it is.

  • So, if you have a ham butt problem,

  • and you're thinking about the ham butt problem,

  • the conclusion that it leads you to is inexorable and counterintuitive:

  • paper is the enemy of words.

  • How can this be? I mean, I love books. I really love books.

  • Some of my best friends are books.

  • But the book is not the best shape for the dictionary.

  • Now they're going to think "Oh, boy.

  • People are going to take away my beautiful, paper dictionaries?"

  • No. There will still be paper dictionaries.

  • When we had cars -- when cars became the dominant mode of transportation,

  • we didn't round up all the horses and shoot them.

  • You know, there're still going to be paper dictionaries,

  • but it's not going to be the dominant dictionary.

  • The book-shaped dictionary is not going to be the only shape

  • dictionaries come in. And it's not going to be

  • the prototype for the shapes dictionaries come in.

  • So, think about it this way: if you've got an artificial constraint,

  • artificial constraints lead to

  • arbitrary distinctions and a skewed worldview.

  • What if biologists could only study animals

  • that made people go, "Aww." Right?

  • What if we made aesthetic judgments about animals,

  • and only the ones we thought were cute were the ones that we could study?

  • We'd know a whole lot about charismatic megafauna,

  • and not very much about much else.

  • And I think this is a problem.

  • I think we should study all the words,

  • because when you think about words, you can make beautiful expressions

  • from very humble parts.

  • Lexicography is really more about material science.

  • We are studying the tolerances of the materials

  • that you use to build the structure of your expression:

  • your speeches and your writing. And then, often people say to me,

  • "Well, OK, how do I know that this word is real?"

  • They think, "OK, if we think words are the tools

  • that we use to build the expressions of our thoughts,

  • how can you say that screwdrivers are better than hammers?

  • How can you say that a sledgehammer is better than a ball-peen hammer?"

  • They're just the right tools for the job.

  • And so people say to me, "How do I know if a word is real?"

  • You know, anybody who's read a children's book

  • knows that love makes things real.

  • If you love a word, use it. That makes it real.

  • Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction.

  • It doesn't make a word any more real than any other way.

  • If you love a word, it becomes real.

  • So if we're not worrying about directing traffic,

  • if we've transcended paper, if we are worrying less

  • about control and more about description,

  • then we can think of the English language

  • as being this beautiful mobile.

  • And any time one of those little parts of the mobile changes,

  • is touched, any time you touch a word,

  • you use it in a new context, you give it a new connotation,

  • you verb it, you make the mobile move.

  • You didn't break it. It's just in a new position,

  • and that new position can be just as beautiful.

  • Now, if you're no longer a traffic cop --

  • the problem with being a traffic cop is

  • there can only be so many traffic cops in any one intersection,

  • or the cars get confused. Right?

  • But if your goal is no longer to direct the traffic,

  • but maybe to count the cars that go by, then more eyeballs are better.

  • You can ask for help!

  • If you ask for help, you get more done. And we really need help.

  • Library of Congress: 17 million books,

  • of which half are in English.

  • If only one out of every 10 of those books

  • had a word that's not in the dictionary in it,

  • that would be equivalent to more than two unabridged dictionaries.

  • And I find an un-dictionaried word --

  • a word like "un-dictionaried," for example --

  • in almost every book I read. What about newspapers?

  • Newspaper archive goes back to 1759,

  • 58.1 million newspaper pages. If only one in 100

  • of those pages had an un-dictionaried word on it,

  • it would be an entire other OED.

  • That's 500,000 more words. So that's a lot.

  • And I'm not even talking about magazines. I'm not talking about blogs --

  • and I find more new words on BoingBoing in a given week

  • than I do Newsweek or Time.

  • There's a lot going on there.

  • And I'm not even talking about polysemy,

  • which is the greedy habit some words have of taking

  • more than one meaning for themselves.

  • So if you think of the word "set," a set can be a badger's burrow,

  • a set can be one of the pleats in an Elizabethan ruff,

  • and there's one numbered definition in the OED.

  • The OED has 33 different numbered definitions for set.

  • Tiny, little word, 33 numbered definitions.

  • One of them is just labeled "miscellaneous technical senses."

  • Do you know what that says to me?

  • That says to me, it was Friday afternoon and somebody wanted to go down the pub. (Laughter)

  • That's a lexicographical cop out,

  • to say, "miscellaneous technical senses."

  • So, we have all these words, and we really need help!

  • And the thing is, we could ask for help --

  • asking for help's not that hard.

  • I mean, lexicography is not rocket science.

  • See, I just gave you a lot of words and a lot of numbers,

  • and this is more of a visual explanation.

  • If we think of the dictionary as being the map of the English language,

  • these bright spots are what we know about,

  • and the dark spots are where we are in the dark.

  • If that was the map of all the words in American English, we don't know very much.

  • And we don't even know the shape of the language.

  • If this was the dictionary -- if this was the map of American English --

  • look, we have a kind of lumpy idea of Florida,

  • but there's no California!

  • We're missing California from American English.

  • We just don't know enough, and we don't even know that we're missing California.

  • We don't even see that there's a gap on the map.

  • So again, lexicography is not rocket science.

  • But even if it were, rocket science is being done

  • by dedicated amateurs these days. You know?

  • It can't be that hard to find some words!

  • So, enough scientists in other disciplines

  • are really asking people to help, and they're doing a good job of it.

  • For instance, there's eBird, where amateur birdwatchers

  • can upload information about their bird sightings.

  • And then, ornithologists can go

  • and help track populations, migrations, etc.

  • And there's this guy, Mike Oates. Mike Oates lives in the U.K.

  • He's a director of an electroplating company.

  • He's found more than 140 comets.

  • He's found so many comets, they named a comet after him.

  • It's kind of out past Mars. It's a hike.

  • I don't think he's getting his picture taken there anytime soon.

  • But he found 140 comets without a telescope.

  • He downloaded data from the NASA SOHO satellite,

  • and that's how he found them.

  • If we can find comets without a telescope,