Slow Rebellion, or the Revenge of Descriptivist Dictionary Makers


In this week’s Video Fix Termcoord invites you to listen to a talk on a very unlikely subject: the rebellion of lexicographers, or how words change the world.


Erin McKean, beloved by the TermCoord staff, is a co-founder of Reverb Technologies as well as an author of the unique online dictionary: Wordnik. In her video, she speaks about changing the world in a more subtle way than fighting over it; rebellion, she argues, is about making the world fit your conviction. And therefore, words can be a very powerful – albeit slow – way to change the status quo bit by bit.


In an entertaining way, McKean explains that the part of the world that she herself wants to change is how dictionaries are made. She claims that in her view, dictionaries should reflect every word used in a language, with links to how it is used – an opinion somehow controversial in the time where neologisms are born daily and can be very short-lived.


The view McKean is presenting is known as descriptivism, as opposed to its contradictory idea of prescriptivism. The key difference between a prescriptive and descriptive approach is that while the former is about defining the item according to a certain set of rules – and then expecting it to behave as prescribed, the latter is about describing the item objectively, based on observations and evidence.


The difference, in general, can be summarised in a simple manner: a prescriptive dictionary will tell you how you should speak. A descriptive dictionary will give an account on how you actually speak.

McKean’s video on the progress of her descriptive dictionary over the six years of its existence is a testimony of how popular and widely accepted descriptive lexicography has become. As Wordnik is an online resource, this makes it easy to track how many people engage with the language presented there. The video states that within six years, 1,732,117 words were listed as personal favourites.

This trend is also followed by many more long-lived dictionaries than Wordnik. In March 2016, words such as vlog, bro-hug, and Dad’s Army were added to the Oxford English Dictionary; for the first time in 28 years, the Australian National Dictionary expanded to include words such as mungo, pube, ranga, or rurosexual. Wordnik’s popularity is also matched by its more streetwise equivalent, Urban Dictionary, which is a tongue-in-cheek crowdsourced glossary of slang and Internet speech.


TermCoord is pleased to see that descriptive lexicography, which has also been a source of many valid and important terms, is gaining the respect and recognition it deserves.

In addition to all the sources available in the article, you are also welcome to access TermCoord’s Glossary of Neologisms.



written by Anna Wawrzonkowska

Trainee at TermCoord, DG TRAD at the European Parliament

Italian and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, Oriel College