NEW ORLEANS—Despite the ever-connected nature of life today, there remains a moment that all of us eventually encounter. Whether talking to a friend, texting with a family member, or emailing and chatting with coworkers, a word pops up that simply stymies.
Rather than racing to the bookshelf and grabbing the old-reliable, these days most people simply type into their search engine of choice and brace for the results—typically with Dictionary.com near the top of the list.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a dictionary; the pace of language innovation is so rapid right now,” says Liz McMillan, CEO of Dictionary.com. “If you think about it, modern English has been in use since the time of Shakespeare. Yet today, I can barely communicate with my 10-year-old son because it’s almost this other language. I’m even getting schooled. ‘Mom, you’re using emoji all wrong.’ OK, well can I get a lesson then?”
McMillan, a former analyst that jokes about Cs in highschool English, caught up with Ars about the language business today during the recent Collision Conference. Despite traditionalists perhaps shuddering at everything from “incel” to “covfefe” to alternate definitions of “snowflake” and “chill,” McMillan actually sees a current renaissance for language unfolding.
Part of it is that innovation she references: think about something as basic as grammar, she says. Traditionally, this language accompaniment helps add definitive structure and “make our text more readable.” But her son and his generation have imparted new meaning and uses that the Oxford English crowd likely never saw coming. “[Today’s youngsters] are using punctuation to impart meaning and emphasis, to make written text as full of voice and tone as the spoken word. It’s amazing,” McMillan says. “Take a period at the end of a text. I write my texts with full grammar, but recently someone said, ‘Why are you mad at me?’ Huh? ‘Well, you put a period at the end of a text message.’ I thought I was being grammatically correct.”
Technology in general—and the Internet in particular—has greatly sped up these kinds of new, widely adopted informal rules of language. Something like slang, for instance, used to develop gradually as a new generation looked to distinguish itself from the previous one. But today, McMillan and her fellow parents can log online and look up something like “fleek” in a matter of seconds, which in turn eventually forces young people to move on from such terms and develop something new much faster than before.
On top of that, the Internet and technology have shifted more and more language usage to appear in “print” (in the general sense—text typed out and visible to others). That changes how language gets used today as well. “Every time I send you a text, an email, post on social, or use a Slack message, it’s written. It lacks that human interaction and becomes more prone to be misunderstood,” McMillan says. “At our core, we’re a judgmental race. So not only is that opportunity for misunderstanding there, it’s permanent. And as much as I hope you remember every single word of this discussion, you probably won’t—whereas you can go back to an email and see, ‘Oh, she said that.’”
Accordingly, McMillan and the Dictionary.com team have seen a spike in visitors to its sister site, Thesaurus.com. If we’re all becoming publishers, we all seem to acknowledge the need for more accurate language or more idiosyncratic flourishes. “We’re becoming so much more conscious and having so much more anxiety about the words we’re choosing,” the CEO says. “It reflects this overall renaissance of language; we’re paying more attention to the language we’re using, too.”
No bookshelf required
These language shifts obviously then affect the primary businesses of language—the dictionaries themselves. Dictionary.com represents a very modernized approach. The company employs traditional lexicographers—the scientific-minded folks who consume copious amounts of content and determine what language merits inclusion based on the data, what its definition is, and what examples best highlight any nuances—but the site has started doing things that don’t fall within the traditional discipline.
“Traditional dictionaries have shied away from defining things like emoji and memes,” McMillan offers. “Are they words? I don’t know, but I like to say, if I say it or use it, and someone knows what it means, it’s a word. But that’s kind of irrelevant; our users need to know what they mean. Reflecting on the anxiety I get about what the smiley face my son sent me means, I need to know what they mean.”
Look up “This is fine” or “? [eggplant]” via Merriam-Webster, and you’ll only read about vegetables. But on Dictionary.com these days, you’ll get a less formal-looking entry that explains the common usage and discusses the origins of it. The online reference book has entire sections devoted to emoji and memes that provide of the traditional dictionary rigor and info but does so in a way that is admittedly less definitive (to account for change or in-progress evolutions) while still being useful.
And when it comes to the standard tradecraft, Dictionary.com can do things faster than its more senior counterparts. “Yass” and “l33t” get the same treatment as “bread” or “bridge” here, while other dictionaries haven’t yet adopted such terms. That’s partially because the lexicographers at Dictionary.com rely on tangible search data previous analogue dictionaries couldn’t, and it’s partially because the business model doesn’t require the site to print entirely new volumes just to add a handful of widely accepted new words each year.
Going forward, McMillan seems to indicate that all of this puts Dictionary.com in a flexible, advantageous position. (And the company has recently attracted some potential high-pricetag acquisition suitors.) The site can think about what the role of a dictionary is within a more active Internet (like correcting egregious and highly public misuses of language, perhaps?). They can observe tangible evidence of the social consciousness (like an observed spike in searches for “misogynist” after the Trump inauguration or for the gender neutral pronoun “ze” at the end of 2017) and ensure the language involved is properly studied and then potentially defined or revisited. And if we eventually get to the point where what we view as language is being regularly used by something other than humans, Dictionary.com can play a role, too.
“We’re certainly thinking about [artificial intelligence], but we haven’t figured out how it’ll impact us as a business. It’s early, but personally, mixing language with machines could be a risky business,” McMillan says. “As human beings, we inherit language, and that means we have years of training with the subtleties and with how to use it. I’ll curse in front of my kids, and they say, ‘How come I can’t?’ Well, I’ve learned how to curse, and when you’re an adult you’ll have learned and then you can curse.
“Machines are trained, they don’t inherit. So the responsibility falls to whoever is training that machine to do it in a way that doesn’t have bias, isn’t offensive, and is generally responsible,” she continues. “In language, so much of cultural identity is captured. We all speak English, but our accents, idioms, the words we choose, vary not just by country, but by city, state, region, and more. Language I hear in Oakland is different from San Francisco; it varies by age and interest, too… So very far into the future, do we end up at a place where humans have adopted language to interact with machines to the point we’ve lost that cultural identity? That’s the scary part—I think it’s very far in the future, but we have to be thinking about it.”