Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts now follow.

Dictionary signals vs. noise looks at the business of crowd-sourcing in dictionary-making. (Crowd-sourcing means outsourcing a task to the general public or another unspecified group.) Some recent discussion about this might give the impression that the field of lexicography is destined for an Urban Dictionary–style makeover. This won’t happen.

It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done to varying degrees.

Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain scepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.

For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.


Lesser spotted portmanteau words briefly introduces the history and structure of portmanteau words, aka blends, before coining a few fanciful examples (which turned out to be unoriginal, but anyway):

Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.

Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary.

The post was prompted by a unusual sense of portmanteau word which I encountered in an old book on Beethoven. You can find out about that – and ponder whether banoffee pie has peaked – at the original post.

Comments here or there are welcome, and if you’re new to this and inclined to read more, there’s always my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

6 Responses to Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus

  1. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I have to confess that like many navigating (and commenting on) the blogosphere, I’ve resorted, on occasion, to quoting word definitions from urban DICTIONARY, perhaps using my, at the time, questionable intuitive judgement in doing so.

    Clearly, this popular ‘crowd-sourced’ online compendium is heavily slanted toward more slangy, or colloquial elements of speech. I detect a kind of intentional cheeky, let’s try to push-the-envelop-of-proper-decorum, laissez faire approach with many of their entries.

    Sometimes I wonder if the guiding imperative behind this site is more directed at projecting a hip, ‘cutting edge’, culturally urbane image, rather than making an effort to be more rigorous in their selection of specific words to be defined. I believe they do a good job, nonetheless, as a kind of convenient niche vernacular speech source.

    Still, I do find uD somewhat entertaining at times…. in a decidedly warped kind of way. (They do seem to have a bit of a proclivity toward bodily fluids, and sexual, and scatological referencing. Not everyone’s cup-of-tea, for sure.)

    The fact that they offer a whole gamut of uD-created, and related merchandise to readers, for sale, gives us a bit of a clue that informing the masses isn’t their sole enterprise. But let’s face fact, you gotta survive, somehow. Whatever it takes.

    Shifting gears.

    I like the portmanteau word, “fantabulous”.

    I’m wondering if danceathon qualifies? Dance+ marathon. (They shoot horses don’t they?)*

    I doubt “splendiferous” works, although it does have a ‘portmanteau-ish’ air about it.

    *Title of a movie from the ’70s(?) starring Canadian actor Michael Sarrazen (sp. ?) and Jane Fonda, who are caught up in a crazed, exhaustive dance marathon contest.

  2. Stan says:

    Alex: I don’t think the UD has any interest in being rigorous in its definitions; it’s more a case of everything goes. Hence my advice that visitors bring a pinch of salt. I wouldn’t classify danceathon as a portmanteau because the -(a)thon part isn’t exactly from marathon: it has taken on something of a life of its own as a libfix, to use Arnold Zwicky’s coinage. These are “word-forming elements that are semantically like the elements of compounds but are affix-like in that they are typically bound”, as he describes it. Michael Quinion calls them combining forms, and lists a few -(a)thon words here.

  3. Steve says:

    I first encountered “curated” about a month ago, and I’m still not sure what it means. I assumed it meant to care for a museum and its exhibits, but a dictionary?

  4. Stan says:

    Steve: Yes, it means to be in charge of, and is traditionally associated with museums, exhibitions, archives and the like. More recently it has broadened to take on internet-specific meanings, sometimes just gathering and sharing links. I wrote about this in the context of semantic inflation.

  5. Steve says:

    OK, but I thought the word for someone who shares links on the Internet was “blogger”, and I wonder if Samuel Johnson was aware that he was the curator of a dictionary (how does he define “curator”, I wonder — perhaps I should Google for it).

  6. […] read this page on a blog that referred to “curating” a dictionary: Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus | Sentence first: “For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries […]

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