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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Erin McKean has an affinity, an affection, a propensity, a penchant for words.

"Dictionary Evangelist" launches word nerd website


Erin McKean loves words. And considering she was once the editor-in-chief of American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, she's familiar with quite a few of them.

"I always wanted to work on dictionaries, ever since I was a little girl," says McKean, who refers to herself as a "Dictionary Evangelist."

Currently, she's launched a new website, Wordnik.com, a site dedicated to words and their meanings. The site allows people to share their favorite words or learn new ones, and claims to contain billions of words, 971,000,000+ example sentences, 7,000,000 unique words, 231,000+ comments, 178,000+ tags, 121,000+ pronunciations, 32,000+ lists and more.

"Almost every site online lets you mark your favorite things: you can 'favorite' a photo on Flickr, a tweet on Twitter, 'like' a Facebook post or a Pinterest Pin and so on," she says. "When we were building Wordnik.com, we wanted to make some space for people to show off their favorite words."

For example, 18 people have "liked" discombobulated as their favorite word. Other words people like recently include redux, psuedo, epistle, vacuous, provenance, peanut butter, dapper, anomaly, etherealize, litotes and superman.

Trending words for the day included infertility, gallbladder, Ps3 and jelly bracelets.

Users can create lists of favorite words in categories, too. There's a list of favorite verbs as well as favorite "beer words." There's also a Word of the Day section, too. During a recent visit, the daily word was "inkhorn," meaning "a portable case for ink and writing-instruments, made of a horn, or (usually) of wood or metal, formerly in common use in Europe, and still in some parts of the East." Who knew?

McKean authored four books about words: "That's Amore," "Weird and Wonderful Words," "More Weird and Wonderful Words" and "Totally Weird and Wonderful Words." She also wrote a novel, "The Secret Lives of Dresses." Last year, she authored an Amazon Kindle Single e-book of new and interesting words called, "Aftercrimes, Geoslavery and Thermogeddon."

"I'm lucky to have been able to write so much about my favorite words. Most folks who really like a particular word put it on their Facebook page, in their dating profiles or on their blogs," she says.

McKean, who currently lives in California, has ties to Wisconsin: her in-laws live in Wauwatosa. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1993.

"I'm really bad at Scrabble, but really good at roller skating," she says.

McKean says she has a penchant for words both old and new. "Sometimes people think that only old words are worthy of being favorited, but I find new words all the time that are lovable," she says.

One of her recent new-word favorites is "phablet," which is a word for a combination smart phone / tablet device. She says she also likes a lot of "sniglet"-like words, including "stupiphany," which means "finally seeing something that is obvious to everyone else."

Almost everyone, she says, has a favorite word. She cites some possible favorites as serendipity because it has a pleasant meaning – "accidentally finding something useful or wonderful" – or quiescent for its beautiful sound (kwee ES sent) or a rare word like frondescense, which means "foliage or the time when a plant's buds turn into leaves."

McKean's all-time favorite word?

"My favorite word is 'erinaceous' because my name is Erin and because it has a fantastic meaning," she says. "It means 'like a hedgehog.'"

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