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Crowdsourcing the dictionary

A publisher turns to the masses for new words

GUS WEZEREK/GLOBE STAFF

To “crowdsource,” according to the UK-based Collins English Dictionary, is “to outsource work to an unspecified group of people, typically by making an appeal to the general public on the internet.” As this definition suggests, it’s a fairly new word; Collins added it to the dictionary three years ago.

As of last month, however, Collins has gone even further, adopting crowdsourcing not just as an entry in the dictionary but as a methodology affecting its future. Taking a page from its own book, Collins is now crowdsourcing the hunt for new words and phrases, calling on the public to submit suggestions at its website (collinsdictionary.com). The response so far has been robust: In the first two weeks of the initiative, there were 2,637 suggestions from more than 2,000 different users, according to Alex Brown, head of digital at HarperCollins.

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On its face, this looks like a brave new world for dictionaries—evidence, perhaps, of the shaky status of lexicographical authority in the age of Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary. But in fact, the practice of crowdsourcing goes way back in the history of dictionaries, many decades before there was even a word for it. And this latest project, despite relying on the wisdom of crowds, still employs experts as gatekeepers.

Of the thousands of suggestions, the Collins lexicographers have named 91 as candidates to be added to their online dictionary on Sept. 1. Words in the running include “floordrobe” (“a pile of clothes on the floor that you’re forced to select an item from when you’ve run out of fresh laundry”), “bridezilla” (“a woman whose behavior in planning the details of her wedding is regarded as obsessive or intolerably demanding”), and “bashtag” (“a mean or rude comment sent on Twitter”).

The website also lists the words that didn’t make the first cut, and may never achieve lexical glory: “mobydickulous” (“ridiculous on an epic scale”), for example, and “brolbus” (“to slide down the banister of a stairway on your posterior”). But many of these are charming nevertheless.

Given that actual lexicographers do decide which words get the green light, this move by Collins isn’t really so wild—it’s more of a savvy marketing gambit. When I worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, I learned that there are few surefire ways to garner publicity in the dictionary business, and announcing the latest installment of new words and phrases is one of them. This coming week, for instance, you may see news articles and blog posts about the annual batch of new words from Merriam-Webster; it’s always a big P.R. moment for the Springfield company.

Indeed, what Collins is doing is similar to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary, which has fielded nearly 20,000 suggestions from users since it began online in 2005. Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, told me that the contributions to the Open Dictionary do serve as inspiration for the annual additions of new words, alerting editors to fresh formations and shifts in meaning and usage.

But Collins is going beyond what other publishers have done. User suggestions will be tightly integrated into their online dictionary, with successful contributors credited by name. And the dictionary is adopting an ambitious online publishing schedule, with updates planned every few weeks.

Dictionary editors have tended to work at a far less hurried pace, and even when updates are made on a quarterly or annual basis, the additions may have been in the works for years. The enormous Oxford English Dictionary, despite its quarterly updates, is known for its stately circumspection, generally requiring a decade or more of established usage before opening its doors to a new word or sense. The word “crowdsourcing” itself hasn’t made it into the revised OED yet.

That’s a bit ironic, considering that the OED was arguably the first reference work to be crowdsourced. Way back in 1879, the first editor, James Murray, made an appeal to “the English-speaking and English-reading public” to scour books for citations that could be used as historical evidence in the entries. The call to arms ultimately generated about a million citation slips that served as the backbone of the OED. The current editor in chief, John Simpson, has renewed the call for public participation, launching a “Wordhunt” to drum up early examples of high-profile words and phrases.

Still, even if dictionaries have long relied on outsider input, the Collins plan hits the fast-forward button. I asked Elaine Higgleton, publishing director for Collins dictionaries, if she was concerned that the rapid schedule might lead to inclusions that wouldn’t stand the test of time. “Personally, I’m not at all worried about that,” Higgleton said. “In the online space, where we don’t have constraints over what we can include and we don’t have any problems about size, I think that’s all good, valid information to include.” She noted that even ephemeral items may be of interest to researchers in the future who want to look back and see what the words of the moment were.

So take heed, you bridezillas and keepers of floordrobes. Your language might seem downright mobydickulous now, but unlike transitory slang of the past, it now has a shot at posterity. The invitation to chime in means that it’s in your hands to campaign for your favorite word of the moment, so that future generations can one day get a glimpse of lexical life in the early 21st century.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at
benzimmer.com/contact.

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