Tag Archives: vocabulary

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).


Java jargon: Coffee lovers take lessons from wine snobs


Sept. 15, 2011

You’ve been there, sitting in a restaurant beside some tweed jacket type who swills his glass of red through tobacco-stained teeth and expounds on the delicate notes of currants and figs, the slight eucalyptus aftertaste. Or perhaps the young professional, giant sunglasses perched on immaculate updo, droning about the complexity of the white, what with its blend of vanilla and lemon, its slight taste of cotton sheets.

Really? Who tastes their sheets?

Let’s face it, wine snobs are annoying — what with the way they crowbar ordinary words to describe something many of us just slug back and quietly enjoy.

Well, now there’s a new snob on the block. With the growing interest in purity, body and single-origin, this drinking dialect is expanding to a different beverage.


Coffee, it seems, is the new wine.

It was inevitable. Most accounts plant the origin of the word “coffee” in the 1600s. It stems from the Turkish word kahveh and the Arabic word qahwah, which originally meant –– wait for it –– wine.

History professor Ralph S. Hattox explains the etymology in his book Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East:

“The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something,” he writes.

“According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is ‘wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].’ The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”

‘Pure coffee’

So, with coffee linguistically linked to wine, it makes sense that we’re now using similar language to describe it.

With a disdain for foam, the caffeinated wine snob is embracing “pure coffee,” mimicking the move from table wine to Cabernet, if you will. A quick trip to a few pure-coffee blogs yields the following: “the coffee held notes of fig, chocolate milk, a bit of wheat, black bean and bran. The overall feel was smooth with a little kick. As it cooled, a smokiness entered the sensory picture.”

And, “the espresso held bright lemon, ginger, rosemary, milk chocolate, with a velvety texture amidst a brown healthy crema.”

That all sounds quite nice, but I’ve never detected rosemary in my espresso. Then again, the two packets of sugar eliminate the need for all but one adjective: “sweet.”

Coffee connoisseurs talk more about single-origin or single-estate coffee, made with beans from one country or one farm. So, instead of Bordeaux and Gray Monk Riesling, you have Costa Rican Tarrazu and Panama Geisha Aristar.

And what of body? Like wine, java has body, and it’s being increasingly sized up (better assessed if you swirl it in your mouth). We yak about Brazilian and Honduran coffee having light and medium body, of Tanzanian beans being full-bodied.

So, why is java jargon becoming more refined?

Chocolate, salt also have own vocabulary

Morton Satin says people are trying to express their individuality through the products they consume. He’s the author of Coffee Talk: The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew and vice-president of the Salt Institute, a trade association for salt producers. Satin says it starts with marketers making us want to buy a product like coffee or wine and is driven by the likes of the Food Channel.

Once we taste a product and learn more about its nuances, we then need the language to describe it.

Satin says what’s happened with oenological language is spreading to not only coffee but chocolate, too. The brown stuff is described in terms of how well-tempered it is (whether it has a good gloss and healthy snap); its aroma (released by rubbing the chocolate with your thumb), which can range from kumquat and mushroom to juniper and baked bread; and how it melts in your mouth: creamy or greasy, or perhaps waxy and gritty. Like wine and coffee, more attention is paid to terroir, and cacao content is also of essence.

A man holds sea salt harvested from a salt field near Karachi, Pakistan. Salt is now being described with similarly elaborate vocabulary as wine, coffee and chocolate. 

Satin says even salt is getting more descriptors. We used to speak merely of table salt, but there’s also kosher salt, sea salt and fleur de sel (an expensive sea salt harvested from the surface of pools of evaporating sea water in France that is said to have high mineral content). There’s Brittany and Japanese sea salt, Hawaiian sea salt, Himalayan rock salt, finishing salt, flake salt, Kala Namak and now even smoked sea salt.

Satin likes the idea of using more refined language to describe the essential things we consume. It means we’re trying to renew our interest in the basics of life, he says, that “we’re starting to recoup a certain part of our consciousness, so our life isn’t just about work.”

This new language doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, Satin admits, so we have to practise it, but as we gain more confidence in knowing what is a good wine and what is good coffee, chocolate and salt, we’ll eventually have the words for it.

And we may already have the words, even if they’re not snob-sanctioned. At a wine-tasting party I attended a while back, we had to come up with a few lines for each wine.

People wrote descriptions like “cinnamon velvet” and “amber mist.” But my favourite was an Australian Shiraz someone said tasted like a “sunset in Manitoba.” I can’t think of finer language.

Brushing up on Big Words


Jan. 11, 2008

My brother-in-law, a bright political science professor, recently admitted that whilst expatiating in class, he was about to articulate a complex word, but at the last minute decided to use a simpler one. The word was dichotomy.

He wasn’t sure all the students would understand it, and says he’s becoming more conscious of the words he uses.

It got me thinking about big words.  I recalled a morning a few months ago. I was religiously brushing my teeth while stuffing my head with the day’s news. A story I heard made me stop mid-brush.  It was about serial killer Robert Pickton.


The defence was trying to prove that his IQ was below average. But in a test, Pickton could define words like lugubrious, pilfering, wildebeest and dromedary.  Huh?  This wasn’t the vocabulary of a simpleton. Pickton reasoned that he “knew animals”.

I reasoned that the average bloke on the street probably recognizes half of those words. And I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job incorporating complex words into my daily conversations.

The English language is growing, bursting with new creations and a steady parade of words from other languages. So why, as English approaches its millionth word, do I feel my own vocabulary isn’t growing along with it?

After all, I love words.  I really do.  When I lived in Germany, I quickly boosted my German vocabulary using a very simple method:  sticky notes.

At the end of the day, I gathered up the new words I’d discovered and wrote them on one half of a yellow sticky note.  On the other half, I wrote simple definitions.  I stuck it to my bathroom mirror, figuring I could learn them while I brushed my teeth (really, what else do you do?)  One sticky note became two, then three and four until the whole side of the mirror was plastered with words.

My German roommate was thrilled because it boosted his English vocabulary.  The system proved so successful, I made new vocabulary notes to bring with me on a bike tour.  Whenever I got bored of cows and sunflowers, I learned a new word.

Back in Canada, I continued to feed my hunger for words.  Whenever I came across a word I didn’t know, I jotted it down.  The words I might actually use in daily conversation made the sticky note short list, words like: soporific, irascible, turpitude. 

I stuck it to my bathroom mirror and each time I reviewed the list and recalled the definitions, I flashed myself a toothy grin (my teeth and vocabulary were mutually getting more brilliant).  I puffed with pride when I casually dropped a nugget into conversation.  That remark was so insensate, I’d say.


Our vocabulary acquisition, I realize, naturally drops off as we leave school.  It’s not that we don’t learn new words. There are scrumptious words all over the place, ready to be picked up ingested.  It’s just that fewer of them seem to be rolling off the tongues of the general populace.  Maybe they’re just stuck in our heads.

A media trainer for more than twenty years,Barry McLoughlin teaches people to simplify their message.  He too is noticing big words are dropping off.  McLoughlin says politicians used to hide behind a wall of complicated words.

Joe Clark was known for his loquaciousness, referring to Canada as a “symmetrical confederation”.

Richard Nixon buried his message in cluttering phrases.  McLoughlin says media and advertisers, attuned to shorter attention spans, are forcing increasingly simpler messages.  In the past forty years, an average TV sound bite has shrunk from 42 seconds to seven.

“Vocabulary isn’t necessarily prized in today’s society,” says McLoughlin.  “People are embarrassed to sound like a policy wonk or an egghead, so they use simpler words.”  He says politicians can’t afford not to simplify their message:  if they don’t, the media will.

Barack Obama is someone who employs small words to great effect, urging Americans to look past “red states” and “blue states” to see a United States.  On the other hand, George W’s use of simple words is just, well, wrong on so many levels.

It’s not only the media; technology is also encouraging us to fit fewer words onto smaller screens, write more emails faster. As we try to get the message out quickly, we generally choose words that are most familiar to us.

“I think it’s a troubling sign in a way,” says McLoughlin.  If you’re shrinking your vocabulary, you’re undermining the quality of dialogue you’re having, and that harms the quality of relationships you have.”

A strong vocabulary allows for nuance, extremely important in diplomacy and leadership positions, he says.  Young people who are growing up without the ability to have a sophisticated vocabulary to calibrate what they want to say, undermine their ability to communicate.

John Serembus, a Philosophy professor at Widener University, is noticing a shift.  For years, he’s taught in “sound bites” to deal with shorter attention spans.  He teaches for ten minutes, stops for questions and a joke, teaches for ten minutes – you get it.


Lately, he’s noticing that vocabulary is becoming an issue.  A student in his logic class didn’t fare well on a test, admitting he didn’t understand the material because he couldn’t follow the “big words” used in the lecture.  It turned out they were words like implication, hypothetical and consistency.

“Needless to say I was taken aback.  But as I thought about it, I realized that he probably never encountered those words until now,” says Serembus.“As a result,” he says, “I still use the words I want to use whether they are ‘big’ or not, but I do a lot of paraphrasing in simpler terms.”

And now, so many Canadians speak English as their second or third language.I often adapt my language for non-native speakers, andI wonder what kind of long-term effect this will have on our vocabulary.

Now I know there are those who will say au contraire, our vocabulary ain’t shrinking.

Language expert David Crystal says he hasn’t noticed any particular change in word length over the past decade.Yes, sentences have become shorter, he says, but that can create more reliance on the words selected, which can actually get longer.

Crystal says we tend to underestimate vocabulary sizes. Most people think the average size of a person’s vocabulary is a few thousand words, whereas it is actually tens of thousand.

It’s hard to know any of this for sure, though, because as Crystal says:”Vocabulary (by comparison with grammar and pronunciation) remains a hugely neglected topic of linguistic study…It’s the scale of the exercise which is so off-putting.”

In the meanwhile, I shall do my utmost to quaff from the fountain of English.  I’m going back to my sticky note—brushing method.

Vocabulary, like teeth, needs to be kept in good working order to keep its bite.