Tag Archives: dictionary

Digital Dictionaries


January 7, 2013

You’re reading the morning news and suddenly you’re confronted with a word you don’t know. Perfunctory, let’s say. Rather than ignore it, or maybe look it up in a print dictionary, you just call the word up online.

Digital dictionaries are becoming increasingly popular; the Modern Languages Association even devoted a session to them at its recent annual convention.

So let’s explore what’s gained and lost in the shift from offline to online.

Ubiquitous, schadenfreude, bourgeois are some of the most sought after pronunciations in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Hearing the word is a definite plus when you’re looking it up.

Peter Sokolwski agrees. He’s Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, and presented at the convention. “We know that is something people really highly value,” he says.

“Having an audio pronunciation that’s not some kind of a synthesized computer voice but a real human voice, especially from people who are learning English as a second language. And we know maybe a billion people are learning English who don’t speak it at home.”

Other websites, including Vocabulary.com, offer audio pronunciations as well. Executive producer Ben Zimmer, who also presented at the convention, says the website used several opera singers to make the 140,000 sound files because they’re adept at interpreting the International Phonetic Alphabet. Consider it a grammatical serenade.

Online dictionaries also allow us to tap into the zeitgeist. Merriam-Webster.com does that by measuring which words are looked up when. Sokolwski says we go online in times of crisis.

After 9/11, some of the dictionary’s most popular terms were rubble, terrorism and surreal. And when Michael Jackson died, we scrambled to look up stricken, resuscitate, icon and emaciated.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Last year, m-w.com’s most looked-up words were socialism and capitalism, often together — people grappling with politics and the economy.

Online dictionaries can measure the words we don’t get (insidious or conundrum); the ones we can’t spell (there, their and they’re), and the ones we trip over (affect versus effect).

“People are using the dictionary more because it’s so much more accessible,” says Sokolwski. “That way they can confirm anytime, anywhere.”

And we’re seeing words added faster in online dictionaries: within several years, not decades. Consider some of the 2012 additions to Oxford (which includes the Canadian Oxford): urbanscape, bling (and blinging) and superbad.

On many sites, users can interact by adding their own word suggestions, and sites such as Wordnik.com compile data from many sources, including Twitter and Flickr.

Look up polythene and you’ll also get its Scrabble score (17), as well as a handy Beatles song title (“Polythene Pam”).

And then there’s Google. If you simply enter “define” and your word of choice, voila! Multiple definitions from multiple sources within seconds.

But, perhaps it’s all a little too much information. Which is why some digital dictionaries are offering simplified definitions, especially for ESLers.



In the online world, you also lose the serendipity of discovering other words besides the one you looked up.

While Ben Zimmer acknowledges that, he says we’ll simply develop different orientations to text as we go online. He’s also the head of Visual Thesaurus.com, which he says is modelled on how our brain works, and uses word maps.

Indeed, with print dictionaries in decline, the future is digital.

MacMillan Dictionaries just announced it will only be online, Encyclopedia Brittanica too, and the Oxford English Dictionary is considering. It’s a big switch. It means having to create a whole new business model, depending more on advertisers, and users who are willing to pay extra for perks.

Nonetheless, Peter Sokolwski is optimistic: “It is the age of also. In other words, we have so many choices. We have the dictionary as a book, we also have that same content online or in an app in your phone.

And as long as we make that content available in every possible way so that you can find it quickly and consistently, then we all win.”

Publishers, advertisers, and especially us, the users. More than ever, we can play with language and learn new words, like quixotic (which, by the way, has a Scrabble score of 26).


Bringing the bling to daily speech


Jan. 13, 2009

Beyonce brought the word bootylicious into everyday speech. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (Richard Drew/Associated Press) 

As Britney Spears rises again, strutting onto stages to tour her comeback album Circus, I’ve started to wonder what will happen to the popular phrase to pull a Britney.

It’s hitherto meant doing something outlandish: with or without shaving your head, marrying your childhood sweetheart and annulling within three days, or having two kids within a year.

Now, because the phrase is so ingrained in popular lingo, perhaps it will come to mean achieving new heights of popularity by acting crazy. The term is as ensconced in popular lore as the superstar herself.

Celebrity-based words and TV speak are increasingly wending their way into daily speech, reflecting a fame-obsessed society.

Before you get the hateration on for this column because you can’t handle the truthiness of what I have to say, I urge you: check it out! (That’s American Idol‘s Randy Jackson speaking, not me.) Words from the celebrity world are slowly creeping into our lexicon.

Meh, you say, shrugging your shoulders (by the way, that word popularized by The Simpsons is on its way into the Collins English Dictionary next year).

The Simpsons as linguistic innovators? Meh. (Associated Press)The Simpsons as linguistic innovators? 

I mused when this first started to happen. O.J. Simpson in the news again brought back memories of the white bronco, a term now parked in the Urban Dictionary to mean getaway car.

Maybe what that O.J. needs is some more bling. That word, now in the Oxford English Dictionary, was thought up in the late 1990s by rappers Cash Money Millionaires.

Then there was of course jump the couch, made famous by Tom Cruise, which means going off the deep end, as he so famously did on Oprah.

Rachael Ray’s EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) is now in the Oxford American College Dictionary and Beyonce’s immensely popular bootylicious has sashayed its way into the OED.

The Urban Dictionary includes political satirist Stephen Colbert’s word truthiness, Jon Stewart’s creation catastrof**k, Mary J. Blige’s hateration, and the unabashedly simple That’s hot! from that celebrity we love to hate, Paris Hilton.

In addition to the celebrity lingo, language spawned by television has been working its way into popular speech. Think of our Seinfeld-isms: yada yada yada, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” high/low/close talkers, double-dipping, and the list goes on.

Then there’s the lingo from the sitcom Friends: the oft-quoted “How YOU doin’?” and the uber popular so-not combo as in: “I’m so not going out with that guy.” Seriously? That’s so Grey’s Anatomy.

Repeating what the stars say

While English has long incorporated lingo from the entertainment world, the cool cats pace of acquisition of our parents’ generation is much faster now, says Tim Blackmore, who teaches popular culture at the University of Western Ontario.

We have the rap world, we have mega stars who shamelessly market themselves, and we have a proliferation of talk shows and reality shows that contribute to our daily lingo.

You know, the whole sista ebonics of Tyra Banks and the bumbling deadpan of Ellen Degeneres (who, incidentally, has her very own dictionary). Of course, there’s also the quick repartee of political satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Satirist Stephen Colbert: Truthiness has its social consequences. (Jason DeCrow/Associated Press)

Blackmore notices lingo popularized by rappers and talk shows is creeping into daily conversation. He reels off a list: don’t go there, that’s so whatever, I’m all about the (fill in the blank), let the healing begin, that’s what I’m talkin’ about, and my favourite: talk to the hand!

“Some of my students, as well as teens and tweens, have a very quick patter,” says Blackmore. “It sounds smart, but then I listen more closely. It’s a loop. They’ve picked up some quick responses from a TV show; they have a certain number of responses and then they run out.”

Blackmore says the issue is there isn’t any conception that what people like Colbert and Stewart say on TV isn’t actually ‘normal’ conversation; it’s been heavily scripted by many people.

But with Canadians spending an average 21 hours per week watching TV, we may just fall into repeating what the stars say.

“This language shows that we’re on top of things, that we’re hip to it,” says Blackmore. In our fast-paced world, we want to have a smart answer, a slick reaction — and these celebrities do what we feel we can’t do for ourselves.

It seems that in talking like celebrities, we’re simply mimicking people we deem successful. We use that ancient tool of language: gossip.

Social psychologist Frank McAndrew from Knox College in Illinois just wrote a comprehensive article on gossip for Scientific American Mind. McAndrew says we chat about celebrities because we’re so intimate with the details of their lives that we feel we know them. Anthropologically, we consider them part of our inner circle.

“We may look to celebrities to learn strategies for being successful, just as we looked to the most influential members of our tribe (e.g. the best hunters and warriors) in days of yore,” says McAndrew.

Expressing the deep thoughts

So what’s the fallout of all this celebriteez lingo?

As Tim Blackmore deftly puts it: “Knowledge produces eloquence and vocabulary. Going from TV show to TV show produces pickup lines.” He notices that his students are slower to come up with a considered response, consumed by their desire to be quick and funny.

He says when they’re asked to form an honest answer to a question without quips, they often pause, saying they don’t know. But after some hemming and hawing and formulating and reformulating of sentences, they do get down to substance.

So the deep thoughts are there; it’s just a matter of finding our own words to express them.

In the end, maybe this celebritized language is an exercise in democracy. We’re all equal in our quest for a crib, a boo, and occasionally a little bling, and in so pursuing, we’re all speaking the same language.

I believe there is some truthiness to that.

Chinglish: Lost in Translation


October 26, 2007


I’m in China, covering the Women’s World Cup of soccer for CBC Radio. It’s another late night and I’m resorting to room service to quell the rumbling in my tummy. But, scanning the menu, I’m not at all sure about the offerings: stuffed fatty meat pork makes me squirm. Slobbering chicken, lion head or cheese melting in ham parcel…I’m not sold. 

I opt for the complimentary apples on my table – at least I know what I’m getting. 

English mistranslations of food dishes are especially rampant in China. My favourite example comes through the dietitian for the Canadian women’s soccer team.

For obvious reasons, the players were very careful not to be too experimental with food. Chicken is usually a safe bet, but not when the dish is translated as the fragrance explodes the cowboy bone. That could have been too, well, explosive.

Other examples of mistranslations abound. A massage therapist advertises: Relex your tired of bady; a toilet for a disabled person is labeled Deformed man toilet; a slippery road is marked Beware, the slippery are very crafty (but they are!). 

Drinktea is hung on a shop door to mean it’s closed (it also means resting in Mandarin). 

Yes, Chinglish is the weird and wonderful result of an English dictionary colliding with Chinese ideograms that often have multiple meanings. 

These linguistic delicacies may well stay in China, but some experts say Chinglish words are zipping around the globe, even working their way into the English language.

The Global Language Monitor tracks and analyzes trends in Global English. Its president, Harvard-educated linguist, Paul Payack, says the Chinglish phenomenon is helping drive the globalization of the English language, contributing up to 20 percent of Global English words. 

Payack says the rate has increased in the past several years because of China’s rising number of English speakers and economic boom. The surge in Internet users has allowed for the free flow of Chinglish. 

In its most recent annual survey, GLM selected the top Chinglish words: No noising (quiet, please!), airline pulp (food served on a plane), jumping umbrella (hang-glider) and question authority (information booth, interestingly enough).

I decided to take some local words back home with me, stuffing them into my already bloated suitcase:  Financial Supermarket (what better word for one store offering stocks, insurance and real estate services?) and Super Brand Mall (only top-end items, please).

Paul Payack says unless a word is on paper, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t count it, but he insists the real language is what’s spoken and what’s used on the Internet.

“Maybe only five percent of Chinglish words will stick around,” he says, “but that’s a lot.” He expects the language cycle will go into high gear during next year’s Beijing Olympics.


The rising influence of China is coming not only through Chinese-influenced English, but also through its more famous export: Mandarin, the most widely spoken language on the planet. And beyond China’s borders, tens of millions of people are now picking up scribe and learning to ink the ideograms. 

University of Victoria linguistics professor Hua Lin says “if Mandarin Chinese ever becomes the first choice of a second language to learn, as English has been, there is…less of a chance for these Chinglish expressions to survive or make significant impact.” 

Meanwhile, China’s biggest cities are intent on sweeping the streets clear of unintelligible Chinglish translations.  Beijing has launched a campaign to stamp out bad English in time for its international debut at next year’s Olympics.  

At Shanghai’s Foreign Languages Institute, a bespectacled Zhang Jiani has spearheaded a student initiative to clean up English on menus, in taxis, shops and banks.

She’s an accounting student, but says this is her civic duty: “I think most of the students here have some English skills and I think it’s our responsibility to do something for the city.”  She says they must, if Shanghai is to market itself as a truly international city.

So, once every few weeks, she meets up with a group of students to trek through designated parts of the city. Equipped with electronic dictionaries, they studiously note any suspected mistranslations.They get the correct wording from a professor, then deliver it to the perpetrator who, they hope, makes the correction.

Drinktea may mean closed for business, but this up and coming generation of Chinese will work until the worst of the Chinglish is laid to rest.