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Dictionaries Can Now Read Us

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By Dr. Marciene Mattleman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - While Samuel Johnson, the grand old man of the modern dictionary, could spend a week writing a definition for a word, Peter Sokolowski, editor for Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, monitors what visitors are looking up as they’re doing it.

New words are continually moving in and online readers can click a button and contribute. When Princess Diana died “paparazzi” appeared and “emaciated” became the most looked up word after Michael Jackson died. “Malarky” surged after Vice President Biden used it in a TV debate.

Lexicographers do field research… what is now called “crowdsourcing” to collect samples of words…saying it’s like taking a census of language. Smartphones are more often used when people are away from work, playing Scrabble or Words with Friends.

Webster’s dictionary was the best-selling book after the Bible for decades. What English professor Lisa Berglund calls “the basis for a shared community…shared basis of knowledge, for a new nation.

Read more int The Chronicle Review.

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