The Web’s Last Word on Words

10/26/11Follow @wroush

Wordnik (wərd-nik) noun. 1. A person associated with or characterized by a love of words, word usage, linguistics, or lexicography. 2. A startup company headquartered in San Mateo, California. Origin: word + -nik (Yiddish, from Russian). Cf. beatnik, peacenik.

On the Internet, it’s hard to get people to slow down enough to use actual words, rather than just acronyms (LOL, IMHO, WTF). Which makes it all the more unusual to see someone like Erin McKean, the former editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, founding a Silicon Valley startup. Lexicographers are a pretty rare breed to begin with—”You could fit us all in a 737 and still have room left over for copy editors,” McKean jokes—but you’re even less likely to find them patrolling the Web, where crass and careless language has long since overpowered concision and eloquence.

But maybe that’s exactly why the Web needs Wordnik. McKean’s company is dedicated to two interrelated ideas about language. The first is that the best way to help people understand words is to show how they’re used in context, with the real-time Web and social media—everything from Wiktionary to Twitter—comprising a big part of that context. The second is that once you’ve built the technology needed to maintain a living, online repository of words in context—a “dictionary on steroids,” as the startup puts it—you’re also in a position to process, enhance, and illuminate text of all kinds.

So if you go to Wordnik as a reader, you’ll find the world’s largest collection of English words and usage examples—6.7 million and counting, more than six times the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. But if you go there as a publisher or a software developer, you’ll find a growing set of tools for making your own content more interesting and actionable. Barnes & Noble, for example, uses Wordnik’s database to power the Word of the Day app on the Nook Color, its e-reader. Blekko, the geeky yet fashionable new search engine, calls on Wordnik’s database for a definition every time a user does a search using the “/define” slashtag.

Erin McKean, Wordnik Founder

When outside Web services like Blekko or the Nook connect to Wordnik, they tap into the same nexus of words and word associations—McKean calls it the Word Graph—that powers Wordnik’s own online dictionary. Like the Web crawlers at Google, Wordnik’s software is constantly assimilating newly published content from trusted sources and adding it to the Word Graph. (The graph sucks in new words at the rate of 8,000 per second, according to Wordnik’s technical co-founder Tony Tam.) This allows the company to surface word relationships and examples that you’d never find through a traditional dictionary lookup. “The domain of lexicography has traditionally been a very manual one,” says McKean. “But taking the same process and adding computational heft means you can do it for a lot more words, and build a really rich graph”—a kind of social network diagram or neural network of words.

Silicon Valley investors are betting big on Wordnik’s ability to change the way people interact with words. In July the company collected $8 million in Series C funding, with Lucas Venture Group, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Floodgate, Baseline Ventures, and individual investor Roger McNamee contributing; the round brought the startup’s total venture funding to $12.8 million. To go along with all that new money, the company brought in some veteran Silicon Valley management help: former Gaia Interactive sales chief Joe Hyrkin was appointed as CEO.

It’s all evidence that after more than three years of research and development work on the Word Graph, Wordnik is shifting into business-development mode and scouting for partners who’ll pay for access to the company’s reference services. “We are now in the process of … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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