Friday, February 26, 2010

Super-D duper dictionaries: the D is for "data"

super-dictionary n. a dictionary database that expresses all direct and associated meanings behind every word

To many people, dictionaries are boring and frustrating. To start with, they contain lots of words, many of them hard to say and too many of them just plain ridiculously obtuse. Thousands of pages written in goddamned shorthand code or something. WTF? And, where oh where are all the pictures!? But maybe the biggest mojo killer: it takes a ton of mental work just to read and comprehend a single entry. Why even bother unless you're a nerd doing crosswords or trying to beat your mom at Scrabble?!

Well, super-dictionaries aren't gonna make every lameability issue go away. There will still be lots of words, millions actually, and some of the content may still leave user pondering WTF? But what super-dictionaries can do is give the word "dictionary" back some long-lost mojo. Like it had before there was TV or telephones. You see, dictionaries are to super-dictionaries as DUPLO is to LEGO (or even Lego Technic, if that means anything to you.) Super-dictionaries are infinitely expandable by design. More robust data doesn't equal more features on its own accord, but an expandable and flexible data structure enables greater and more powerful features.

Oh, snap! There's not a single super-dictionary available on the open web. (Remind me what year it is, again?) There are only a few publishers working with super-dictionaries and they're keeping the data to themselves for editorial purposes. Right now while super-dictionaries are used to make the content of dictionaries better, they aren't being used to make the users' experiences any richer.

Until there are some super-dictionaries on the web, we'll just have to dream, like Orion Montoya, who back in 2007 wrote: "I want my computer’s dictionary to be a lexical Bloomberg terminal that reads my mind." I like to think he meant "reads my mind" in the way a BMW is said to drive or how the best handling bicycles "disappear beneath the rider." It's just a better tool to inform human expression.

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” - Stephen