Wednesday, November 07, 2007

TED: "Ideas worth sharing"

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an annual conference that has been organized since 1984 and has recently added an extensive online archive of currently around 150 talks to its offline activities. The aim of TED is to challenge the best 'thinkers and doers' to 'give the talk of their lives' in under 18 minutes. From what I've seen so far they certainly deliver on their promises. The online TED talks are not only interesting in terms of contents (some talks that struck me on just glancing through the archive include talks by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a well-known ape language researcher whose bonobo Kanzi is something of a non-human primate celebrity, by Steven Pinker, a professor of linguistics who has written several popular books about language, and by a Nokia researcher about our emotional bond with our mobile phone and about the future of mobile phones); because the quality of the video recordings is so good and the speakers are so skilled they also offer very good listening comprehension practice.

One talk featured in the "Words about words" theme section deserves your special attention, as it deals with words and dictionaries. The speaker is Erin McKean, who apart from writing about dresses on her blog A dress a day and editing a journal 'for the layperson' interested in language and linguistics is also Chief Consulting Editor for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, and in this capacity she was the editor in chief of the second edition (2005) of the New Oxford American Dictionary. In a very entertaining and accessible way, comparing 'dictionary problems' with ordinary, day-to-day problems like traffic or cooking, McKean tries to explain that there is no such thing as 'good words' (which are in the dictionary) vs. 'bad words' (which aren't), as well as showing what lexicographers do, what the difference between electronic and print dictionaries amounts to (not that much, really), and how anyone can help re-write the dictionary (sounds familiar, to those of you with Balderdash & Piffle on your mind). Highly recommended!

(Note: For some strange reason the embedded video seems to stall after 14 seconds -- if that happens, just go to the source website and watch the video from there.)


  • Apart from her blog about dresses, Erin McKean also blogs about dictionaries over at Dictionary Evangelist.

  • Another fun word-related blog is Wordlustitude, written by Mark Peters, who describes himself as a "dictionary-licking, English-major, word-nut". Wordlustitude is an online, ever-expanding dictionary of nonce words -- new coinages illustrated with citations from existing blogs as well as with an additional invented example. Here's the made-up citation for the rather horrifying verb denutify:

If God decided to denutify all men and start over with a race of self-replicating super-women, do you think I could hide on the moon from his ball-busting wrath?

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