It’s very seldom I come across a new tool on the Web that jumps straight to the top of my bookmark lists, but it happened this morning. I got a tip from Charles Hodgson’s latest post on podicitonary.com on a funky new site called Wordnik.com that had my fast-twitch bookmarking reflexes firing almost instantly.
How does it DIFFER?
What’s so impressive, and how is it better than – or at least different from – any of the excellent reference tools out there? UrbanDictionary.com for example has become an indispensible reference for new slang and jargon. Don’t know what a “beauty booger” is? You’re in luck!
But in particular, how does wordnik compare to the granddaddy of them all: Dictionary.com? I have to admit that as a long-time word nerd (Scrabble, reading the OED for fun, the whole works) and professional brand namer, I’m a big fan of Dictionary.com. It has evolved over the past few years from providing a single set of standard dictionary definitions to providing a huge laundry list of definitions from a cross section different dictionaries, including specialized financial and medical searches, as well as etymology, suggested related searches, and cross references to encyclopedia and thesauri.
Oh and advertising. Loads and loads of advertising. Just scroll down through this definition of the word “brand” to see how exhaustive and exhausting this approach can become. So what could be missing? Well, the simplicity and focus of the early days for one. But more importantly, with this “stream of noise” approach, what gets lost is context – a sense of how the word works in the real world.
That’s where Wordnik comes in.
Check out this search on the word “brand” and compare it to the Dictionary.com approach. The first thing you’ll notice is the clean layout, with everything in clearly marked containers. You’ll also see that the first item is not the definition, but examples of the word in the context of an actual sentence. And quite often from unconventional sources like Twitter.
Wordnik claims to have a growing database of more than 130 million examples to go with its 1.7 million words. This actually gets closer to one intent of the first, and still one of the easiest to read dictionaries, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language which promises: “a faithful record of the language people used”.
Check out the Wordnik approach to the phrase “beauty booger” – which doesn’t have a formal definition, and which sends Dictionary.com into a fishtail. But which Wordnik allows you to piece together from Twitter usage.
Or try Wordnik for the word fishtail. You’ll see that they also search Flickr tags, and a quick scan shows me that the term “fishtail” can refer to a kind of braided ponytail, something motorcycle-related, and the name of a peak in Nepal – none of which appear at Dictionary.com.
Where Wordnik needs work.
Okay, it ain’t perfect. That’s why they’ve stamped “Beta” all over it – or as they put it in their welcome e-mail “Because we are still in beta, there are almost certainly hiccups and other infelicities.” In particular, the dictionary definitions themselve quite often fall flat in capturing the whole range of senses for a word.
For example, when you search “branding” the only definition that comes up is “the act of stigmatizing” – which totally misses the sense of the term that I’ve built my business on. On the plus side, there is a bit of Wiki-ness to the Wordnik site, so even if I wasn’t able to add a definition myself, I was able to submit the following comment:
What’s missing here is the modern business sense of branding, which I define as “the process of organizing a company’s products, messages, and corporate identity to help consumers understand who they are and what they do.”
Will this help? Hard to say. It will depend on whether a real human on the other side sees it and does soemthing about it (which is going to be a lot harder when more than 23 people have looked up the word). I’d love to see an open wiki environment moderated by fellow wordgeeks, but that requires a critical mass of users to filter out the type of self-serving editing that I’d love to do on the “branding” entry.
A quick word on the name and logo
Very quick actually: great. Nicely understated on both. It will be interesting to see if the noun-weighted name ever becomes a verb like “Google” – as in ” Wait a moment while I Wordnik that”. Or to use the Twitter / Tweet model: “let me Wordneek that.” Or perhaps I overstretch my point (for the first time ever).
So to sum up: Wordnik is cool for word nerds, and very useful for us in our branding work. With some more tuning and opening the door to deeper user contributions, it could become a killer app for everyone else too.