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English 'Open Dictionary' Follows Wikis
[Interview] Michael Guzzi of Merriam-Webster discusses a new online definition submission system
Roberto Spiezio (seong)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-22 12:04 (KST)   
Have you ever "maxed" a business proposal? Ever "googled" some information on the Internet? Are you a "zorroant"?

Springfield, Massachusetts-based company Merriam-Webster may have the answer.

The company has about 90 employees -- 2/3 of which are editorial staff -- and five making up the Electronic Product Development, which can also rely on several contributions from other departments. Last September, the company launched a new service named "Open Dictionary," that allows people to contribute to "create" the English language by submitting words and definitions to its Web site.

OhmyNews International interviewed Michael Guzzi, manager of Electronic Products at Merriam-Webster by email last week.

Please introduce yourself to OMNI readers, specifying what your current position is and some information about your background.

I'm Michael Guzzi, Manager of Electronic Products. I was Webmaster for Merriam-Webster for a few years before I became manager.

I have a Masters degree in English from the University of Connecticut (my focus was Medieval literature and language), and I originally worked as an editor for the company.

What is the Open Dictionary Project?

Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary was launched on Sept. 26, 2005.

The new feature enables Merriam-Webster Online visitors to submit words and definitions that are not already entered in the dictionary and to browse or search those submitted by others.

We encourage users to submit words that they've actually seen or heard used by someone else and to provide information about where they encountered the word, but word inventions are allowed, too, if they are clever or entertaining enough.

We wanted to utilize the new technology available to create a useful and entertaining reference that covers the cutting edge of language and enables word lovers to share their knowledge of new or less-known words -- ones that don't quite satisfy the strict lexicographical standards a word must meet to make it into one of our "regular" dictionaries.

How does the Open Dictionary work?

A user comes to Merriam-Webster Online and clicks through to our Open Dictionary "Submit an Entry" page.

Users fill in the form with information about the word they are submitting, including part of speech, definition, category, example sentence, source information, and brief personal information if the person wants to be given credit for his or her submission.

When the form is submitted, the submission is immediately added to the Open Dictionary database (MySQL) and displayed via PHP with a time/date stamp at
the top of the "Most Recent Entries" list.

The Open Dictionary is monitored throughout the day to watch out for submissions that warrant removal, including those that include obscene, hateful, or violent speech, comments about or directed at individuals, and advertisements.

How many people are assigned to this new project?

At least 14 people have contributed to the project, either in terms of vision, development, or maintenance.

What countries have you received words and definitions from, so far?

We've received submissions from 43 countries, including Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, India, Israel, Italy, Lesotho, Malaysia, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, the U.S., U.K., Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Open Dictionary looks much like a sort of a "Wiki" of the English language, in which every user can add words and definitions to the dictionary: where is Merriam-Webster going to go from here?

Right now, we're watching the new feature to see how people are using it and how it develops.

We may consider adding functionality that will allow users to comment on and edit Open Dictionary entries.

I found it interesting that people can suggest words and definitions. At the speed rate at which even cultural globalization is proceeding, English is more and more becoming the "global language." Do you agree with this statement?

Sitting here in my office in Springfield, Massachusetts, I'm probably the least qualified person to speak about the prevalence of English across the globe.

But if the diversity of contributors to the Open Dictionary, so far is any indication, English is clearly used and understood (and enjoyed), to some extent, globally.

Is it on its way to becoming "the" universal language? Certainly, not in my lifetime. The universal lingua franca perhaps!

I guess that many neologisms are created anywhere in the world every day. Can the Open Dictionary also be seen as a chance to perform a "census" about the state of the English Language in the world?

A census is very strictly structured and the information you find in it is anticipated by the questions, so I probably wouldn't use that word to describe the Open Dictionary.

Its contents are pretty formless, and it is fascinating because we can't anticipate the next day's submissions.

To me it is more of a 180 degree change of perspective on the language from looking at words after they have been nailed down and established in the language, to looking at them as they emerge before usage and nuances of meaning have settled in and before they have earned permanence.

What is the state of English nowadays?

That's a loaded question, but the short answer is that English is alive and changing as it always has been. The Internet gives the language more to talk about, provides a multitude of new ways to communicate, and connects people that without it probably never would communicate, so I think it's safe to say that technology has a lot to do with how language is changing today and probably will for some time.

The Open Dictionary is one way to take part in that change, to watch it and bear witness to it as it's happening right now, and to have some fun in the process.

A project like the Open Dictionary clearly shows that practiced language - - the language of the "person in the street" -- is nowadays prevailing over grammar. What is the relationship between grammar rules and the "in use" language, in your view?

To compare apples to apples, the kinds of words you find in the Open Dictionary are probably better contrasted with the standard, established lexicon, than with grammar.

You can think of the standard lexicon as the time-tested, core of the language; words like "administrivia," "mahoosive," and the verb "to google" are the more delicate new growth on the fringes of the language.

Some of the new growth may not last a month, some may last a year, and some words may have more staying power and become permanent.
I tried the service and found it effective, useful, educational and even entertaining.

However, I wouldn't recommend it to non-native speakers who haven't obtained a high level of English; the non-standard words included risk being confusing, especially for learners.

A RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed service would be a very useful tool and it would add more fun, since all the people interested could have the new words included into the Open Dictionary delivered to their desktops, via one of the many programs available on the Internet.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Roberto Spiezio

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