August 19th, 2014

foxy

Peter Sokolowski

This evening I went to hear Peter Sokolowski talk at the library:
Join us at Old Town Library from 7:00-8:00pm on August 19th for one part sociology, one part word nerdery. Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster, will present "The Dictionary as Data: What the Online Dictionary Tells Us About English". He'll discuss how dictionary use changes over time, and how it reflects the politics and culture of the world around us.

He's a delight to listen to. He talks really fast, which is useful, because he has a lot to say. He gave brief highlights of dictionary history, and talked about his job, and why the M-W Collegiate Dictionary is free online, and why the M-W Unabridged is no longer printed (it's too big.) Mostly he talked about interesting things he learns from monitoring which words are most frequently looked-up: http://www.merriam-webster.com/popular-words/index.htm
He can tell when people are watching Bill O'Reilly. He can tell when people are playing Scrabble. He showed us graphs of how particular words' look-ups jumped immediately after particular events. Immediately after 9/11, the most frequent words were "rubble" and "triage". Later, they were "jingoism" and "terrorism". A few days later, they were "surreal" and "succumb". He said that a tragedy always causes a jump in "surreal".

That part ended at 7:30 on the dot. Then he started taking questions: more dictionary history, more about his day-to-day job, what it means to be a radical descriptivist. That stretched fifteen minutes past the hour, even though he talks really fast. He reminded me of randomdreams in that I got the feeling I could literally ask him anything, and he would have something fascinating to say about it.

I don't know how often he does things like this: he's on vacation, and one of our librarians is an old friend of his from college. But if you like word nerdery, and you get the chance to listen to him, take it!

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