Erin McKean launches Wordnik — the revolutionary online dictionary — thanks to her TED Talk

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter

Today, Erin McKean realized the idea that forms the base of her 2007 TED Talk with the launch of, a dictionary that evolves as language does. On Wordnik, users can add new words and meanings, tag words with related expressions, see real-time search results for words from Twitter and Flickr, discover how many Scrabble points each word is worth — all on one page.

Here’s what it looks like when we search the word “blog”:


To further understand this amazing project and its implications, the TED Blog talked with Erin this afternoon. In the middle of a hectic launch day, she gave the following excited interview:

We love Wordnik here at the TED office. Some of us may have spent the majority of the morning playing with it.

That’s great! We’ve been joking that we’d like to be so addictive that IT managers ban us.

So, how long has this been in the making? You talked about a similar concept in your TED Talk from 2007, but when did it start concretely?

We consider Leap Day of 2008 our real start date. It was almost a year after the TEDTalk that we got together the money and the team.

We’ve heard that may have had its beginnings at TED? Can you confirm this rumor?

Yes, yes! It was after the talk at TED that Roger McNamee said, “Let’s have lunch.” I had lunch with him and his wife Ann. We started with the idea that we could use language analysis techniques to help other companies. But as we were discussing it, we realized that it wouldn’t be all that different to start this as a stand-alone being.

Then Roger brought in Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures. Steve gave a lot of advice on the practical end, which was great, because my career as a dictionary editor did not completely prepare me for my new role as a start-up CEO. I found Grant Barrett and Orion Montoya who I worked with at Oxford University Press. Steve and Roger then found Tony Tam, who became our head of engineering. And that was the beginning of our staff.

Without TED this would not have happened. There’s zero chance that I would have met Roger McNamee, and even less of a chance that I would have had 20 minutes to speak at him. The TED video was also a great recruiting tool because when I needed to explain my idea I could just email the link. You know, for when people ask, “Who’s Erin? What does she want to do?” I could just direct them to the talk.

Everyone at TED has been so helpful. Tom Rielly has given me so much support. And I had a conversation with June (Cohen) this morning where she offered to add the transcripts for the TED Talks to our text examples. So when you look up a word like “synecdochically,” which I mention in my talk and probably isn’t found in many other places, there will be a reference. And, because the transcripts link to the actual video, people can hear the words for which we didn’t have a link to the pronunciation.

That’s another thing about this system — people who are contributing don’t even know they are. If you tweet a word, we’ll link to your tweet on Wordnik, so you don’t even have to go out of your way.

We love that you included Twitter and Flickr elements. How did you decide on pulling these in? It doesn’t seem to be an immediately intuitive decision, but is so helpful to understanding a word’s use and meaning.

It’s funny because it’s completely intuitive to dictionary editors. How can we show how a word is really used? The other day I tried to find out if “pants” was being used as a suffix and I found a tweet for “awesomepants.” Twitter is like overhearing people’s conversations, which is exactly what dictionary editors have been wishing we could do for years.

Flickr — well, if you’ve looked at dictionary illustrations you know that they tend to be uninteresting, and so small. With Flickr, you get a lot of abstractions too. What dictionary would have pictures of “honor”? When you look “honor” up on Wordnik, you get pictures of women named Honor, which tells you that it’s also used as a proper noun. You also get images of flags and different symbols of the military. Now you can see what feelings words evoke.

Interesting. We were also wondering what the source was for the text examples of words …

Right now the majority are from the Gutenberg e-text — these are books that all out of copyright. But we’re working with partners on getting bigger feeds. We’re not really worried. There’s a 400-year-old tradition of example sentences in dictionaries being treated as fair use. Also, if we use somebody’s work and they’re not happy, they can call us and we’ll take them out of the history of the English language.

What words are you looking forward to people adding?

I’m really looking forward to seeing Twitter used to invent new words. I’m more interested in seeing how people deepen and expand the network of words than seeing any words in particular. I really can’t wait to see what will happen with the tagging function. Already, if you look up the swine flu tag, you find words like “aporkalypse” and “hamdemic.” You would never find these in a regular dictionary! We’re trying to make the ephemeral more permanent. And, again, it’s less about the individual word and really about expanding how words are connected. After all, we don’t speak in one-word exchanges.

As a last question, I’d like to ask how you came to your theory on words — that, as a dictionary editor, you would rather be someone who gathers all words than someone who keeps “bad” words out of the dictionary?

I guess I was thinking about it as a lapse in critical thinking. Brilliant people would come to me and say, “Is this right, or this?” And then I’d give them the evidence on both sides and say, “Now, make up your own mind.” And they’d say, “No, I want the answer.”

Now, these were people who would never consider doing this in any other area of life. For anything else, they would use the evidence to come to their own conclusions. These were people who probably wouldn’t take my recommendation on a restaurant. But in this respect, they were willing to accept whatever answer I gave them. Instead of this, we want to give everybody access to the words, to make up their own minds.

Also, whether words are right or wrong can vary according to use. I might say to a friend , “That movie was awesomepants!” But I would not lead into a movie review in The New York Times with the word awesomepants. That would be inappropriate. People expect that one size fits all with words, when that doesn’t work in any other area of their lives. I hope that we can change that view.

Comments (11)

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  • Hans Lange Østergaard commented on Nov 12 2009

    I just returned to say I am loving the updates to the site. This is so cool! It’s so easy to go adventuring amongst all the new and old words now. Brilliant!

  • van theodorou commented on Jun 10 2009

    This is pretty cool. I know our younger generation seems to be always inventing words and as my kids are getting close to the teenager years, Ill need to get an update. Its funny bc i have friends who have teenagers and they ll come to me asking what something means..and im like…huh..i have no clue, lol.

    Van from T1 Line

  • Ricky Ashenburg commented on Jun 10 2009

    This is a great huge project. Can’t wait to see of these new words!

  • suja tha commented on Jun 10 2009

    Very nice to hear about this much effort.


    FTP Client

  • Hoodia Gordonii commented on Jun 8 2009

    Very nice to hear about this much effort. No doubt it is very useful for everybody. Really a new theme of dictionary.

  • jing li commented on Jun 8 2009

    OH i love this one! any subtitles? I’d like to translate it into Chinese! where shall i apply? any idea??

  • Laura Cococcia commented on Jun 8 2009

    This is amazing – and actually quite reflective of the evolution of certain words into our culture. Consider Google or Coke. These brands evolved over time to become how we actually reference internet searching or soda. I’d bet that the use to Twitter, Flickr, etc. and the ultimate “spreading” of this idea will only proliferate this trend – dare I say, “user-defined content?” It would also be interesting to see a linguistic trend analysis on this over time.

  • Hans Lange Østergaard commented on Jun 8 2009

    The understanding of the internet as a centripetal aswell as a centrifugal force is at the core of this. Media scientists would argue that the internet is not the boon for world wide democracy that it was thought to be. It is instead dividing people into smaller groups still. Groups that are unable to understand eachother as they are remote from one another in thinking and in language. This website is the prerequisite for a world wide understanding. This website can be the example of the enormous democratic potential of the internet, if people would only use it. Wittgenstein would love this, and he might just call it ‘awesomepants’.

    That being said, I miss the fascilitation of discovery. A random-word-function, a word of the day widget of sorts. Instead of using the site merely as a dictionary, as it’s current beta design suggests, it should invite the user to exploration. Otherwise, the IP managers will not be hitting those ban-buttons as soon as hoped.