As an ESL teacher, I get asked to explain the meanings of words pretty much every time I'm in the classroom. ("What's a bamboo shoot? Is that like a shot of alcohol?" became a topic of discussion in my class last week.) After years of practice, I've gotten pretty good at explaining words and their interesting nuances. Sometimes I write "definitions," too - and sometimes I need a dictionary to help me with that. But what I often find is more useful to my students is when I write a series of examples (common uses of the word) on the board so they can develop their own intuitive sense of what the word means.
Given that, when I read this interesting article in the NY Times about the website Wordnik.com
and its new approach to defining words, I was immediately overtaken by
geeky excitement. It's a cool website doing something innovative with
literacy! What could be more full of geeky fun than that?
so exciting about Wordnik? They seek to do for definitions in an online
format what I do for my learners. That is, they give examples -
context - equal weight and billing alongside definitions. And why not?
As the NYT article pointed out so well, the standard dictionary
definition format was developed for a medium in which space is limited.
Brevity and conciseness are necessary in a paper dictionary, else the
thing would quickly become too unweidly. So, examples of the word used
in context are sacrificed in place of (sometimes difficult to parse)
definitions. This is obviously not the case with a website. The
website can continue to grow and branch and take up as much space as is
needed to get across the real meaning of a word. Enter Wordnik.com.
these examples of the Wordnik entry for "suspense." Which one best
conveys meaning? I find myself thinking that they work best in tandem -
the definitions and the examples reinforcing each other. Wordnik is on
to something, I think. What do you think? Leave me a comment or send
me a tweet @swbrandt.
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