We have a tradition at Hunch, instituted by Caterina Fake, called “15 min. of genius”. It essentially involves bamboozling awesome people who stop by the Hunch office into talking to all of us for an hour or so. (We tell them it’s only 15 min., but the awesome discussion always ends up being quadruple that time, if not more)
We actually had two 15 minutes of genius today since we had two awesome people come by the office. But especially awesome was Erin McKean, founder and CEO of the new online dictionary Wordnik. I had met her once before and liked her very much, but after today’s talk I’m absolutely smitten.
Fitting to what she does (and what has apparently been her dream since she was 8), Erin loves words, language, and the study of their respective evolution. She is brilliant and hysterical; I could have listened to her etymological anecdotes all day.
Here’s Erin delivering a presentation at the 2007 Ted conference. Also check out Wordnik. It goes way beyond most dictionaries in the sense that it thoroughly examines how the meaning of words may be changing colloquially (although the site still renders an ultimate subjective judgment based on a “Usage Panel” of linguists). Importantly, the site also cites usage and context it finds throughout the web. Two good examples: hopefully and peruse (I’m pleased to say that while the site acknowledges the way these words are often used today, the Usage Panel agrees with me that those uses are generally incorrect).
The title of this blog post is a quote mentioned by Erin that I had never heard before, apparently by Lord Chesterfield. The full quote:
“Words are the dress of thoughts, which should no more be presented in rags, tatters, and dirt than your person should.”