A quarter-millennium after Dr Johnson published the first-ever English dictionary in 1755, "the world's first democratically compiled, multimedia online dictionary" has just been launched in Johnson's house in London's Gough Square. If you listened carefully, you could have heard the great lexicographer's ghost ripping off his periwig in a fury, and unloosing a fusillade of invective at the company in the celestial tavern.
Why? It's those words, "democratically compiled". They suggest that, when it comes to the meaning of words, one person's opinion is as good as any other's. Johnson, a lifelong Tory reactionary, would have been apoplectic at the idea. "Democratically compiled?" he'd say. "When, sir, was a work of reference any use unless wholly undemocratic, indeed prescriptive?"
The everyone-join-in dictionary is called wordia.com, and is the joint offspring of the television producer Edward Baker and Michael Birch, the internet entrepreneur who founded Bebo, the social-networking site. They've linked up with HarperCollins, the blue-chip publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch, to make use of their electronic dictionary of 76,000 headwords and 120,000 definitions. But the unique selling proposition behind wordia.com is visual: they want to compile an archive of videos in which thousands of members of the public will offer their own definitions of favourite words and have them posted on YouTube, with which Baker and Birch are also in partnership.
To encourage nervous tyro lexicographers, the website designers recommend exploring the videos made by "celebrity orators". They are themselves defined as "sports stars, comedians, educators, actors and entertainers etc" – and a strange gang they are. Not because of their dubious status as celebrities, but because of their wholesale ineptitude at semantics. The radio comedian Jon Holmes is pictured in front of an advertisement hoarding of his show, offering to define the word "tantamount". He says: "Noun. Meaning: equivalent to. For instance, standing in front of a 10ft-high billboard of your face by a busy ring-road is tantamount to idiocy, because it makes you look like a git." Is this a helpful definition of the word? Some might consider that standing in front of a 10ft etc etc is tantamount to extreme vanity and self-advertisement. But that may be unfair. Elsewhere, Gail Porter, the TV personality, defines alopecia as "baldness", and tells a charming story about how the children at her daughter's school respond to her hair-free bonce. Nikki Graham, the hyperactive birdbrain from Big Brother, glosses "invention" by a shrill demand to know why anyone ever thought it was a good idea to invent air travel.
Definitions for Wordia
Other "celebrity orators" are less talented and helpful in their definitions. An irritating couple calling themselves "Kiwichopsuey" cutely define "purple" as "wacky... and kinda deep and mysterious... spiritual... agitated... royal... eggplant". Hundreds of patrons at the Edinburgh Festival were asked for contributions. One young woman, in a stripy tube dress, was keen to define "irony" because, she says, everyone gets the word wrong. She tells us: "It's the written-down version of sarcasm." Jane Austen, for one, would be surprised to hear that.
The site's co-founder Edward Baker is convinced that it's an idea whose time has come. "Wordia.com taps into the zeitgeist and a gap in the online dictionary market," he says. "Coupling personal video definitions with textual definitions is an innovative approach to learning language as, when a word is personally defined and put into video context, it acts as an aide-mémoire, a mnemonic – something instantly more memorable and useful than a textual dictionary definition alone."
New definitions are encouraged on wordia.com. They can be "proposed, discussed, discarded or embraced", although no one person seems to have the final say. "Users will then be able to rate and select which definitions they find to be the most relevant, academic, touching and even funny." Hmmm. One needn't be a paid-up member of the lexically rigid Académie française to wonder whether a dictionary can usefully be run by chat and semi-consensus; and whether it's right for readers to "select" a meaning they find "relevant", rather than one that's actually correct.
One might also object that wordia.com has no truck with etymology. Much of the fun of dictionaries is seeing where words come from and how they shade into each other. Without any etymological gloss, you miss a lot of history.
Take the word "shibboleth", meaning a password or catchphrase by which you can identify the sympathies of the speaker, as the words "No return to boom and bust" once characterised New Labour. Look it up on wordia.com, and it's "a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession etc". This is all very well, but isn't it just more interesting to know that it comes from the Hebrew word for an ear of corn and, according to the Old Testament (Judges 12), was used as a password in the war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites? The defeated Ephraimites were trying to get home across the Jordan, passing themselves off as Gileadites. To discover who was who, everyone who crossed the river was asked, "What's the Hebrew for an ear of corn?". The Ephraimites weren't able to pronounce "shibboleth" (it came out, on their tongues, as "skibboleth"), they were rumbled, and 40,000 of them were killed.
A complete explanation is in the Penguin English Dictionary, and a truncated version in the new Chambers. Wordia has nothing to report.
More appealing than Wordia's misleading "orators" is www.urbandictionary.com, the web's home-grown dictionary of slang terms from urban cultures and subcultures. It was started in 1999 by one Aaron Peckham, a student at California Polytechnic State University. Its slogan was "Define your world", and upwards of three million words have been submitted, by assorted jocks, dweebs and pansy-asses over the last nine years. There's nothing academic or intellectually rigorous about it, but it offers many incidental insights into the obsessions of youth culture. And it's very rude. As its Wikipedia entry sniffily observes: "Unlike a traditional dictionary, the content presented on Urban Dictionary is often coarse, profane or offensive, and submissions are not checked for accuracy." But because the site never takes itself too seriously, the browser is able to enjoy the ride without taking the definitions as gospel.
It's a youth thing. If you look up, say, "poser" in a old-fashioned printed dictionary, you'll find a perfectly serviceable explanation (noun, Brit, informal, somebody who dresses or behaves in a self-consciously stylish way designed to attract attention and impress others). If you look it up on Urban Dictionary, seven different definitions from high-school-age browsers jostle for your attention, some wretchedly spelt ("Poser. One who pretends to be someone whose not"), others more sophisticated ("A person who attempts to blend into a specific social group. Eg: 'Justin is such a poser-goth; sure, he comes to school in all black, but he doesn't even know who Edgar Allen Poe is').
You needn't "select" one definition over the others – they all offer shades of meaning, around a concept rather than a word. Sometimes they're written in a nicely dry tone, unknown to wordia.com's contributors: "Gangsta. A sociopathic member of the inner-city underclass, known primarily for being antisocial and uneducated. Also known for ready access to illegal drugs and weapons, and staggeringly poor marksmanship."
A further reason for visiting the Urban Dictionary is its casual way with neologisms. Every day, the site offers a "word of the day", and they're often ingenious newcomers to the language. Last week, for instance, saw the arrival of "gaybie" (the child of a gay couple) and "liptease" (the act of putting lipstick on seductively). And for grown-ups who are unsure of the exact meaning of yoof words such as "emo" or "scene kid" (or of dubious sexual practices such as "hot monocle"), this is the place for you.
Of course, if you want the real thing, the main event, the towering sequoia of dictionaries, there's only one place to look online: www.oed.com, the Oxford English Dictionary, which hit the web in 2000. It dwarfs all other word-hoards, with its 750,000 terms used in English over the last thousand years, illustrated by 2.4 million quotations. It constantly updates modern slang (it's rather proud to have recently included "ladettes", "hoodies", "shagtastic" and "minging"), and steers you towards explanatory sites. Look up "infer" on Wordia.com, and it will tell you that, among other things, it means "imply". Look it up on AskOxford.com, and it will tell you the real meaning, its origin, derivatives and usage, and explain exactly how it differs from "imply", and why everyone gets it wrong.
However Messrs Birch and Baker may wish to "tap into the zeitgeist" with their video vapourings, in the world of dictionaries, there really is no substitute for the accurate answer.