A couple of years ago, lexicographer Erin McKean (a LH favorite, quoted here many times) gave a TED talk about the evolution of language and the shortcomings of traditional dictionaries (an hour long, well worth your while). Since then she has been working on an entirely new sort of online dictionary to address some of those shortcomings, and it’s now gone live (in beta) as Wordnik (great name). In the words of Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, “A crowdsourced toolkit for tracking and recording the evolution of language as it occurs, its goal is to gather as much information about a word as possible — not its mere definition, but also in-sentence examples, semantic “neighborhoods” of related words, images, statistics about usage, and more.” I gave it a trial run by entering the word sculpin (which came up in this LH thread) and was pleased to find not only the American Heritage Dictionary definition but a couple of sample sentences (“‘You sculpin-mouthed hyena, blowing up men’s property”; “Go along you old sculpin, and turn out your toes”) and a set of Flickr images of the unprepossessing-looking fish. Check it out for yourself. (Disclaimer: I consider Erin and Grant Barrett, the site’s editorial director, pals and have helped out in a minor way with the site.)


  1. Has dementia set in for me already? I could have sworn I learned about Wordnik last week from you, prompting me to add it to my list of links, jion up and follow them on Twitter. If it wasn’t you, I better visit Wordnik and investigate “losing it”.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Great talk on YouTube! I looked up sculpin too through lack of imagination and next to the examples for the noun they also have:
    an’ I seed ’em killin’ folks an’ sculpin’ uv ’em
    which is not the noun sculpin at all but a form of a verb “to sculp” (meaning “to scalp” I suppose), so that is a glitch still.

  3. Stuart, it was MattF in the Jazz thread here.

  4. Thanks MMcM. Nice to know my dotage remains on the rapidly approaching horizon and has not actually arrived.

  5. “which is not the noun sculpin at all but a form of a verb “to sculp” (meaning “to scalp” I suppose), so that is a glitch still.”
    It’s a glitch in the right direction though. All it needs now is that note on it you just wrote, and that would fix the glitch. But without that citation, how else would someone figure out that use of “sculpin'”?

  6. I didn’t have any trouble understanding it. It sounds like an attempt to render some vernacular into written speech in the style of Huckleberry Finn.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, of course the sentence is quite understandable the way it is, but if you had read the word “sculpin’ in a regular dictionary under the same entry as the noun sculpin ‘a type of fish’ the occurrence of two such different meanings would have been extremely strange. In this case, the computer program is not (yet) able to separate sculpin’ from sculpin (but sculpin’s would have to be kept with sculpin).

  8. So sculpin’ is no more a real word than ‘cuz or gonna.

  9. marie-lucie says

    Sculpin’ here is a dialectal form of scalping (or more precisely, to sculp is a dialectal form of to scalp). ‘cuz is a contracted, dialectal form of because. gonna is a contraction of going to.
    The written sculpin’, like the rest of the sentence, is an attempt to reproduce the dialectal speaker’s pronunciation, but in order to know the exact pronunciation (eg to reenact the interview, or to place the speaker’s origin in one region or another) one would have to either listen to the original recording or get a precise transcription done by a phonetician. We cannot take for granted that the speaker who said sculpin’ rather than scalpin’ used the same vowel as in the noun sculpin (or skull for a more common word), only that that was the way the recorder transcribed it.

  10. jamessal says

    a TED talk…an hour long
    The linked talk is actually — disappointingly — only sixteen minutes long. I couldn’t find a longer one on the site either.

  11. I’d think Urban Dictionary would deserve to be mentioned in her talk?

  12. Graham Asher says

    Oliver Wendell Holmes on the sculpin, which (in The Professor at the Breakfast-Table) is the nickname for a deformed fellow-lodger:
    Now the Sculpin (Cottus Virginianus) is a little water-beast which pretends to consider itself a fish, and, under that pretext, hangs about the piles upon which West-Boston Bridge is built, swallowing the bait and hook intended for flounders. On being drawn from the water, it exposes an immense head, a diminutive bony carcass, and a surface so full of spines, ridges, ruffles, and frills, that the naturalists have not been able to count them without quarrelling about the number, and that the colored youth, whose sport they spoil, do not like to touch them, and especially to tread on them, unless they happen to have shoes on, to cover the thick white soles of their broad black feet.

  13. I couldn’t find a longer one on the site either.
    TED talks are limited to 18 minutes, aren’t they?

  14. Maybe I was thinking of another talk; I know there was an hour-long one.

  15. jamessal says

    Maybe I was thinking of another talk; I know there was an hour-long one.
    Maybe this is it? I haven’t watched it yet, but I will — I’m on vacation!
    TED talks are limited to 18 minutes, aren’t they?
    Browsing the site just now, I found a couple near-half-hour ones.

  16. Yes! That’s the one!

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