wordia – new definitions of literacy?

This morning, I went to Samuel Johnson’s house (now a museum dedicated to 18th-century London) in the old City of London. Today is (or would have been) Samuel Johnson’s birthday; the occasion was the launch of Wordia, a new startup that lets users define individual words in video and upload them to the site.
(The launch invitation came, cheekily, in the form of a Times obituary for the dictionary.)
Wordia aims to create an ever-evolving ‘dictionary’ of vox-pop word definitions: “a democratic ‘visual dictionary’ […] where anyone with a video, webcam or mobile phone can define the words that matter to them in their life.” Founded by TV producer Ed Baker, the site is supported by HarperCollins, the UK’s National Literacy Trust and the Open University amongst others, and already boasts a veritable glossolalia of video’d word definitions.
It started me thinking about the relationship between dictionaries and power – who claims the right to be the determiners of ‘acceptable’ usage and definition? One of the functions of Johnson’s original dictionary was to standardize spelling – which, in Shakespeare’s era, was pretty much a free-for-all – and to enshrine ‘proper’ or ‘Standard English’ as one of the markers of those permitted to access the centers of power. At that level, a democratic dictionary is in some senses a contradiction in terms: if a dictionary is where you go to settle disputes about definition, then what happens when a ‘dictionary’ becomes the locus for those disputes?
One possible answer is that its strongest field may end up being neologism – or, to put it another way, slang. At the launch, I asked a member of Wordia’s team: aren’t you worried that the most popular area for definition will be those where language is most in flux – ie slang, obscenity and insult? (I’m thinking, amongst other things, about (NSFW link) Dan Savage’s attack on Joe Santorum through the medium of neologism…). While the avowed intent – democratizing the power to define – is a laudable one, won’t moderation be a major concern? And doesn’t that invalidate the whole exercise?
Arguably, though, Urban Dictionary has already cornered the market in this kind of demotic definition. For one thing, it has the advantage of anonymity: the submission form urbandictionary uses is a far more appealing interface for uploading foul language than Wordia’s, which requires each submission to be spoken to camera. And Wordia’s mission – at least as far as I can gather from the About pages – is more high-minded than Urban Dictionary’s brutally relativist ‘Define Your World’, and reflects instead enthusiasm for language generally and an ambition to broaden our understanding of what literacy is.
I’ll be following Wordia with interest- will they get enough videos to generate a satisfying mass of content? Are other people’s definitions of words interesting enough to browse? Time will tell. But the site reflects a general online trend away from the playful (and often base and ugly) anarchy of unmoderated chatter towards tidier, better-managed and more mainstream approaches to user-generated material. Perhaps the Web is growing up. And in any case, Wordia provides one more link between the language/power debates of the Augustan print boom, and today’s ongoing struggles to learn just how much, how little (or just how) language, power and the Web will interact to shape our culture.

5 thoughts on “wordia – new definitions of literacy?

  1. whitney

    Thanks for sharing this. It seems, though, that Wordia is more about narrative than it is about defining words. In other words, it seems less of a community-created dictionary (in the way that Wikipedia is a community-created encyclopedia), than a kind of memory bank. I wouldn’t consult it to learn what a word means, even a slang term, but I might use it to share, to hear stories, to see how people relate to their language. The young woman who defined “panda” in relation to what she looks like when she wakes up after not taking off her make-up was revealing. I’ve long had this strange fascination with how narrative could emerge from a dictionary-like structure, so I’m curious to see where Wordia goes!

  2. Alain Pierrot

    Nice illustration of the dual (schizophrenic?) relationship with language, between normativity and use. Reminds me of the deceitful title of Grevisse, ‘Le bon Usage’, and its strictly non-normative content.

  3. J.C. Martinez

    This is just a note of praise.
    Of all the blogs I currently subscribe to, yours is the one that provokes the most reaction in me and adds value to my life.
    Many thanks for publishing what your publishing.
    I’m moved by what you reveal and expose like Wordia in this edition, and in a previous post – Sophie books.
    When it comes to the notion of intellectual history, you rock in revealing the trends and social movements that we are entrenched in.
    Anyway, thanks for the insights.
    – J.C.

  4. Gary Frost

    We need meta dictionaries as well. Alot of slang is dialectic or enclave expression that is unshared on a wider scale. This interplay of intelligibilitiy lends interest to slang, elite or vernacular.

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