Data-Induced Serendipity: Finding What You Didn't Know You Knew
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  Erin McKean   Erin McKean

Dictionary Evangelist


Wednesday, September 24, 2008
04:30 PM - 05:30 PM

Level:  Introductory

The word serendipity comes from a 1754 novel, The Three Princes of Serendip, in which those three titular princes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."

Large data sets are full of serendipity: when you amass enough information, the information about the information becomes meaningful in and of itself.

Surprisingly, this is also true of language data. In the making of dictionaries, the collection of large amounts of written text has led to interesting discoveries about words we knew, but didn't know how well we knew: for instance, that the word 'vivacious' is primarily used about women, or that the word 'cause' is mainly used with negative outcomes (you can cause accidents or injuries, but not birthday parties).

By observing how words behave in the wild and tracking that behavior, we can develop new, powerful (and often charming) insights about our language, and about ourselves.

Erin McKean likes to call herself a Dictionary Evangelist. She was most recently Chief Consulting Editor, American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, and was the editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2e. She is the editor of VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly. and the author of Weird and Wonderful Words, More Weird and Wonderful Words, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, and That's Amore (also about words). Previously, she was the editorial manager for the Thorndike-Barnhart Dictionaries at ScottForesman, a Pearson company. She has served on the board of the Dictionary Society of North America and on the editorial board for its journal, Dictionaries, as well as on the editorial board for the journal of the American Dialect Society, American Speech. She also serves on the advisory boards of the Wikimedia Foundation and XRefer. She lives in Chicago, rants about dresses on her blog (A Dress A Day), and she's actually really bad at Scrabble (but surprisingly good at roller-skating).

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