Times Developer To Build Dictionary of the Future

Six weeks ago, John McGrath had a dream job. Since March 2008, the 39-year-old software engineer had been working at The New York Times on the interactive news technologies team, what he called a “special forces unit,” under editor Aron Pilhofer. He was coding Web projects like document viewing programs and features for election season on NYTimes.com.

“I think I had a rock steady job there,” he told The Observer over the phone, after mentioning The Times‘ recent newsroom cuts. “I was working with technology that I loved and the people were great.”

But for the past three years, Mr. McGrath had been fiddling away evenings and weekends on his second love: a side project called Wordie.org. On the site, users can create profiles, make lists of words and phrases, tag them with related expressions and discuss their meaning and evolution. It’s an online playground for word nerds.

Mr. McGrath has another description for it: “a social network about words.”

“It’s kind of a mixture of a chitchat; casual, friendly conversation; and dictionary lexiconography,” he said. 

Last month, Mr. McGrath announced to his users, also known as “Wordies,” that the site would merge with Wordnik.com, a similar word geek site that allows users to add new words and definitions, see real-time search results for words from Twitter and Flickr, and find out how many Scrabble points each word is worth—all on one page.

Within weeks, Mr. McGrath left The Times and moved with his wife from New Jersey to San Fransisco to build a dictionary of the future.

Wordnik, launched to the public in June, was co-founded by Erin McKean, former editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press and editor of VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly. Mr. McGrath and Ms. McKean met at a conference a few years ago. “We talked shop, you know—word-related stuff—and vaguely kept in touch,” Mr. McGrath said. When Wordnik was considering integrating more social components into their network, she asked Mr. McGrath to join the team. He accepted.

Ms. McKean wrote in a blog post on the Wordnik site: “We’ll be planning and plotting and figuring out how best to add Wordie’s right brain to Wordnik’s left (and Wordie’s chocolate to Wordnik’s peanut butter) so that we can build the best darn dictionary of the future possible.”

Mr. McGrath’s users, of which there are currently just about 15,000, add words or phrases they’ve seen in recent news articles and books or overheard in conversations. Under most words or expressions, there are links to definitions from 16 different sources, including Merriam-Webster, Twitter and Google. But they can add their own and tag them with related words or new findings. “Plucked” was recently defined as “Expelled for failing examinations. Found in Jane Eyre Chapter 10 in reference to John Reed” by a user. “Jane Eyre” is a tag.

But Wordie is really about the lists: lots of ’em. There are lists that chronicle the antiquated adjectives and nouns in newspaper names (“nugget,” “meridional”), diseases that make lovely baby girls’ names (“vericella,” “rosacea”), and a few that dig at tabloids, including the annoying words they use (“preggers,” or “hizzoner,” which is “New York–tabloid speak for “his honor” or Mayor Bloomberg). There’s another list titled “Ford to City,” which compiles annoying headlines “mostly from the New York Post and the New York Daily News.” 

Mr. McGrath said Wordie would soon be integrated into Wordnik to help build a real-time, automated dictionary built with trusted dictionary data, along with information by the people and for the people. “You know, it’s always dudes sitting around in tweedy jackets sort of like rubbing their chins and arguing whether or nothing something is an official word,” Mr. McGrath said. “We’re not about that. We’re not gatekeepers. It’s like a big party and all the words are invited.”

The site originally began as a joke, a place with “all tags and no content,” Mr. McGrath said. He never planned to make money off it. He ran Google text ads only on Tuesdays at first—as part economic experiment and part gag: “Starting tomorrow, Wordie is going to run ads. Standard Google text ads (no images), at the top of each page. But ads will run only on Tuesdays. Kind of like casual Friday, but for ads. And on Tuesday,” he wrote on the site’s blog in October 2007

Ms. McGrath said he might miss those days when he didn’t have to take his little Web site so seriously. “Wordie used to be a hobby—it kind of ran itself,” he told The Observer from San Francisco. “I could do whatever I wanted and people would love it or hate it. I could just kind of shrug my shoulders.”

Now he’s taking on a somewhat weighty task by joining a team that’s building the next generation’s OED. The Times will soon announce his replacement on the interactive news technologies team.

“I think a lot of developers think they’ll have some great idea that will change the world,” Mr. McGrath said. He admitted he never expected that Wordie would be it.


Times Developer To Build Dictionary of the Future