Dictionary Evangelist and founder of Wordnik.com, Erin McKean spreads the good word about words. Former editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press and editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2E, Erin also shared her quest to redefine the dictionary itself in a 2007 TED talk.
That redefined dictionary is Wordnik.com. Erin explains, “What we’re really trying to do is map the whole language. We really want to transform the way people relate to meaning. We want to give you a 360-degree view of what that word does.”
We spoke with Erin about her passion-driven career and running a start-up. Plus, we get her expert opinion on iDoneThis’s name.
Your career has clearly been shaped by your passion for words and lexicography. What motivated you to actually work within these fields?
It just felt like a really compelling thing to do. The funny thing is, my hobby is sewing but I have absolutely no desire to do it professionally in any way. I just want to sew for myself. I think that’s probably the difference — how compelled you feel to share what you like with other people.
Did you already have a clear idea of what you wanted to build with Wordnik or was the result more organic?
A little bit of both, because at the beginning we weren’t sure that making this map was going to be even possible given how big English is. But we knew that making a dictionary was not going to be enough.
So Wordnik captures how language evolves with technology.
Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. Because the map that we make changes as people use it. You look up something that we’ve never seen before — we add that to the map, even if there’s no data there. It’s like we pencil it in waiting for the meaning to arrive.
Lexicographers are always playing catch-up. We’re always chasing the language. We don’t produce the language, we report the language so we’re always a step behind, but I’m hoping to make that a baby-step behind and not like a seven-league-boot-step behind.
How has working on Wordnik been different than working on a print dictionary?
I love working with software engineers. The ingenuity and the pride they have in making the impossible possible, not just barreling through but doing it as elegantly as possible.
I’m envious in a way, because their words actually make things. So I’ve been trying to pick up a little bit of coding as well because that seems to me like the ultimate interesting words.
Right, because coding is a language too.
Yeah! And it’s much more regular. It has to be a certain shape. It’s like Shakespearean plays. It has to be in iambic pentameter or else it’s not Shakespearean.
Have your work habits changed since becoming a founder of a start-up?
When I first started working on dictionaries, the joke was that every day was like Sesame Street, like today is sponsored by the letter P. You’d spend a lot of time on one letter. But now as a founder, my job is mostly to do whatever needs most doing that day.
You’ve also found time to write a novel.
I’m kind of an accidental novelist. Before I worked on The Secret Life of Dresses, I really didn’t ever intend to write one. Or if I did, it was going to be science fiction and full of angry robots. But I’m really happy that I did and it was a really tremendous experience, kind of like running a marathon.
I’m trying to get deep into another one. I’m trying to set aside time for writing. It used to be that I could fit in writing into the empty spaces of the day, but startups don’t really leave that much time. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit of a zero sum game.
How does iDoneThis fit into that schedule?
It’s nice to have iDoneThis which is so relatively unstructured that I can put down anything. It’s much more reporty. Even though I love some to-do list programs, by the time I check the little tick-box, the task has changed so much that it bears very little resemblance to what I originally said needed to be done. So what I’m checking off doesn’t feel like the real thing.
I tend to be really playful with it. I’m really writing to myself. So instead of writing “answered e-mail”, I tend to write things like “email email email email email email” to kind convey how much email I was actually answering.
I make sure that I record things that wouldn’t normally be in my to-do list, like if I get a funny text from my son who’s 11, or if I have a particularly good run that day I try and note it down, ‘cause I don’t want to have a separate program where I’m like, here are nice things that my child did and here’s my workout log.
As someone whose work focuses on words and language, what do you think about the name of iDoneThis?
Oh, I actually like iDoneThis as the name for the product! I think it’s very lighthearted and “iDidThis” sounds — it’s just not as fun. For some reason “done” sounds more complete. Like you could do something and have it still not be done. And even something that you “did” could still not be done. But when you’ve done something, it is over. I think it’s memorable and that’s an important point.