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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fauxcabulary Lessons (on curating, crowdsourcing, and not totally failing)

When I created Fauxcabulary back in August of 2006, my goal was singular, simple… or so I thought: to find and detail the inception of new words as they are coined via the Internet.

Here’s a longer description of what I was looking for:

This site aims to define words found in articles and conversations that are not yet found in dictionaries. Its ultimate intention is to trace the evolution of language as our need and use develop along with technology and culture.

To qualify, a word had to have been used in an article (or post or column) online, but not have yet been included in the major dictionaries. I was not looking for slang, technojargon, or sniglets. There were already a slew of sites like Urban Dictionary that collected trendy words and phrases.

It’s tricky, this issue of techojargon and the fine line to pop culture. I’m not sure where it is.

As an Internet geek, I don’t think twice about using words like twitterverse to give context to a story. I got a little thrill when the word stitchpunk was coined a few months ago, around the opening of the movie 9, and was immediately understood and accepted by readers of Internet articles anywhere. io9 did a great post defining stitchpunk. There’s something special going on with these types of words, but they weren’t really what I was looking to catalog either.


I definitely wasn’t looking to learn any cute pet-names for people and things, but the vast majority of unsolicited submissions were the equivalent of the word shmoopy as coined on Seinfeld, when Jerry and his new girlfriend get really, really annoying to be around. I’m sure I sound ungrateful for the enthusiastic support of friends and family who emailed me new words; they just didn’t belong on Fauxcabulary.

And that’s the part that made me feel like a real dweeb. There they were, my most loyal supporters, and I was going high-brow on them, babbling about my needs for documentation and citation. Any time I didn’t include a word, even a charming word like “idiotsyncrasy” (submitted with laughter by my mother and stepfather) I felt like I was making a mistake. Not a mistake against my tiny but growing catalog (which I felt I had to treat as precious), but a mistake nevertheless, a missed opportunity perhaps, to do with the website community, or more accurately, my audience. At the time, I believed my friends and family were my only visitors. By being more loyal to the submission guidelines, I choked off a lot of interaction and dialogue. Looking back, I could have done something as easy as make a new catagory. I could have featured a new pet-word a week. Who knows.

I mean, what was I really interested in collecting? Words? Stories? Or maybe moments in history, a word that serves as a little tick-mark that says, “there, that’s where this started.” Like, you’ve heard of Dweezil Zappa, right?

In his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book we read the story of Zappa’s wife Gail, who was very beautiful, but had a funny looking baby toe.

“It wasn’t a toe, it was a dweezil” he writes.

So while their first son was being born, a nurse made Frank fill out the hospital forms, but they hadn’t yet decided on a name for the baby. Frank wrote “Dweezil” for the first name. Under religion, he wrote, “Musician.” The nurse, according to Zappa, was not amused.

It’s sad to think my submission guidelines would have rejected a word like Dweezil just because it’s the pet name of Frank Zappa’s wife’s toe. But then, my curator brain takes over. If every woman’s weird baby toe was called a dweezil, then we’d have a winner. There’s the crux of the biscuit.*

I found it extremely hard to find words worthy of being included in Fauxcabulary on my own while also sticking to the guidelines. Typically, I’d find them through serendipity while reading the daily interwebs, but when my free time became overtaken by the pursuit of graduate school admissions, and then graduate school itself, I had less and less time to look. And less time to document and post. And so Fauxcabulary went mostly dormant.

Again, I felt like I was making a mistake even though I figured by that point, surely nobody was looking. Maybe my dictionary constraint was just too impractical. My silly little blog wasn’t needed.

There were more established and more popular “new word” or “dictionary” sites out there, curated by more official, or more Internet-famous people, like Dictionary Evangelist Erin McKean who speaks at TED and generally does awesome things in this regard as a lexicographer. Then in June of 2009, McKean launched Wordnik.com. I felt that bittersweet combination of admiration and regret that any creative person feels when they see something they wish they had been responsible for. I joined Wordnik, and took delight in adding my first word to their bank. Better to add a word to a viable website I thought, than keep it to myself and my own humble little cause.

Then in August of 2009, just two months after the launch of Wordnik, my friend Richard Nash sent me an email that said only this, “Erin McKean, former head of Oxford’s US Dictionary program, and now EiC of Wordnik.com, misses Fauxcabulary...!”

Cue the dramatic pan of camera from the computer monitor to my stricken, shocked face. Cue my slow and staggered rise from the chair, the flutter of hand to brow, the agonized moan, the humbling pride of being on the radar of Erin McKean for genuine and geek-worthy reasons, and the sore, sore regret upon reading the email thread in which she remembered the launch of Fauxcabulary, and was “sad” when “they” didn’t keep it up.

I had done something right, and I had done something wrong. But I wasn’t sure at the time how I could have done anything differently. While I was mulling over the consequences of both strict guidelines for submissions and lack of content for Fauxcabulary, one of my lovely author clients, Bruce Frankel, submitted neologinerd and the etymology of the word nerd. Deciding to go with the flow, I cataloged them in Fauxcabulary.

In a strange coincidence less than a month later, I was honored to be encouraged to apply for (another one of Wordnik’s founders) John McGrath’s former job at the New York Times. He had been the one behind Wordie.org, which now forwards to Wordnik. I was told that McGrath left the NYT to work full-time on Wordnik. It felt so weird and awesome to once again overlap with a fellow neologinerd. I declined to go for the job at the NYT, as awesome as it sounded, because I already had many irons in many fires. Sometimes I wonder what might have been, but then ultimately I don’t, because my goal is more to be where a person like McGrath is going, as opposed to where he’s already been. 

So.

I’m still taking submissions for Fauxcabulary.com, and I encourage you to read my laborious submission guidelines, even though experience and common sense tell me that I have absolutely no right to expect you to do so. Or shoot me an email at info at fauxcabulary dot com.

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