Words, Made for People By People

As Sarah O’Keefe said just before Erin McKean‘s keynote at the STC Summit in Dallas today, here’s a woman who got Venture Capital for a word-related business. That’s so unique, you’ve got to be interested in what she has to say! Erin was an excellent speaker – she related her opener to the recent news that “Technical Writer” is now its own separate writer job in the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Erin’s title is “Dictionary Editor” and she admitted it’s not in a standard category. More like an extended intensive hobby. She’ll be just fine, though, folks.

Her message that dictionaries do not need to be merely a collection of abstracts resonated with this audience – 700 attendees at the Society for Technical Communication annual conference, the STC Summit. We found her talk entertaining, informative, and insightful. And if I were a sixth grader with a thesaurus, I’d layer in even more adjectives!

My takeaways from her talk are summarized here:

  • Dictionaries are tools, not books (even though the dictionary definition of a dictionary says it’s a reference book!)
  • People make words. Journalists have to write definitions for invented words daily. Case in point – geeksta.
  • True authority is a matter of confidence – in the match with an audience, in the author, or in the context the authoritarian brings to the conversation.
  • Finally, and I knew this already from trying out Wordnik, conversation about words is a wonderful thing.

Try wordnik.com to see how users of a tool can make the tool more and more useful.

For people.

Making words.


  • May 4, 2010 - 2:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this so quickly Anne. I wondered if the photos of the “little people” Erin used in her slides were of the new line with the wider base so kids don’t choke on them. My mind goes in weird places sometimes.

    I also connected your message of Conversations and Community with Erin’s thought that words derive meaning only through communities–the original “wikipedia” that self-edits language. Ironically, when I spoke with her later, she mentioned that wikipedia is experiencing power struggles over the editing of content, with certain groups trying to remove specific content.

    That is supposed to be changing, or may have changed by the time this comment posts. However, this power struggle is also a sign of community, so really it all levels out.

    Yes. She gave us lots to think about as writers.

  • May 4, 2010 - 6:54 am | Permalink

    The Little People were definitely vintage – the ones I played with in the 70s, not the ones my kids play with. I like how your mind works. 🙂

    Wikipedia is always an interesting community to read about. Adam Hyde, the founder of FLOSS Manuals, went to Wikimania last year. He attended Jimmie Wales’ presentation about the state of Mediawiki, and learned that they are concerned about the leveling off of numbers of contributors. You can read his report from the mailing list archive if you’re interested in an inside look. I think power struggles will naturally occur in any community, it’s human to reach for more and more. 🙂

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