GOAT Salon: Q&A with Erin McKean

Our next GOAT Salon is on Wednesday, June 28th with the wonderful Erin McKean of Wordnik! Here’s a little taste of what to expect from her next week.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I am a lexicographer, a developer evangelist, an obsessive sewist of dresses with pockets, an accidental novelist, and a mom. Also, I think cereal is soup, and soup is a waste of time (fight me).

What will you be talking about for this upcoming GOAT Salon?

Well, first off, everything you think you know about dictionaries is wrong, so that’s probably a good place to start. Then I’ll probably rant for a while about the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, and perhaps talk a little bit about why Javascript and Esperanto are so similar. If time allows, I can talk about novel-writing, running non-profit websites, and APIs. Something for everyone!

Mule is a design studio, but we also like to get ourselves involved with politics and current events. How do you see your work tying into design or politics?

We all know instinctively that words are political (if they weren’t, people wouldn’t argue about terms such as “pro-life” or get upset about gender-neutral pronouns). I think that it’s important to give people as much information as possible about how words are used, so that we can acknowledge and understand the political uses of language.

Also, whatever you’re designing, the words you use are an important part of that design, either as part of the design itself, or in how you explain your design to the people who will be approving or implementing it. Are you designing for “users”, “customers”, “clients”, “patients”, “partners”? Are you making something for “women” or “female X”? Those words all have different feels, and your choice of words will have an influence on what gets created.

Wordnik is a people-sourced dictionary. Why do you think this is important?

Language is a delusion that we all agree to share — words (as Humpty Dumpty pointed out) mean what we (collectively) decide that they mean. You can’t have an accurate representation of the words of a language without input from the users of that language.

I also like calling Wordnik ‘people-sourced’ rather than ‘crowd-sourced’ … Wordnik has a lot of ways for individuals to contribute, including adding comments to a word, but the best data (I think) comes from the example sentences, which are taken from published works where the author was not thinking about Wordnik AT ALL. By looking for usages “out in the world” it helps offset the tendency for the loudest or most motivated voices to try to game the system.

That said, one of my favorite people-sourced aspects of Wordnik are the word lists. We’re getting close to 50,000 lists!

Be sure to grab your ticket for GOAT Salon here, if you haven’t already.