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Do-it-yourself word definitions

29 September 2008

The launch of a new website which encourages everyone to upload videos of themselves delivering their own definitions of their favourite words could offer freedom from the dead hand of the past or be the last straw for pedants, depending on your point of view. is powered by YouTube and borrows many of its techniques of using personally recorded video to reach a wide audience. But this new site is supported by the publisher HarperCollins UK, perhaps with an eye to the advantages of publicising its own reference books (although the underlying message appears to be that you don't need their definitions, as you're better off making up your own). Such august bodies as the UK's National Literacy TrustUK-based organisation which has campaigned since 1993 to improve literacy standards across all age groups. Excellent research information and details of the many initiatives the charity is currently involved in. It also has a useful page of news stories on UK literacy, which links to newsletter and the Open University also support the initiative.

Samuel Johnson will not be the only one to turn in his grave. Generations of scholars and editors have laboured to produce towering scholarly edifices like the Oxford English DictionaryWonderful online resource giving 'a truly astounding picture of the English language as an extraordinary living phenomenon' (Robert McCrum); Over 500,000 words with its carefully vetted annual addition of new words. How can people who know nothing at all about it think they are qualified to make up definitions, and then not even write them down but just produce a video of themselves defining them?

Many who respect and seek to preserve the English language from the depredations of email and texting, not to mention YouTube and poor spelling, will be horrified by this. The two young Americans who have just been fined $3,035 (£1,640) for correcting a sign in the Grand Canyon National Park which had a misplaced apostrophe and a missing comma, would surely take this view. The two founded Teal, the Typo Eradication Advancement League, which seems now to have been eradicated itself online.

So, what's the positive angle on The people running the site say:

'We're a team of language enthusiasts and general word nuts who have joined forces to create a new kind of dictionary - a democratic 'visual dictionary'. A place where anyone with a video, webcam or mobile phone can define the words that matter to them in their life. We believe that everyone wants to express themselves more clearly, whether to win debates, spark conversations or simply make people laugh with a well-chosen word.'

So should words be democratically defined, or is there a right definition which everyone should use? Well, it really depends on your point of view.

This debate could run and run.

The Chicago Tribune on the Typo Eradication Advancement League