The Meaning of Everything, by Everyone

Well, not by everyone, but by the efforts of thousands of people at least. That’s how the giant Oxford English Dicitionary was created, as pretty much everyone knows.

Reading The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester recently, I was struck by a few parallels between then and now — or, rather, between that and this. One thought was that this is a pretty good illustration of the wisdom of crowds, so popular nowadays. Of course, it depends on the crowd you hang with as to how wise the product will turn out to be, and this delightfully eccentric and quintessentially Victorian crowd turned out to be as wise as one could have wished. (The abilities of some of hte volunteers, particularly when it came to languages, was almost incredible.) If you haven’t read Winchester’s highly accessible history of the making of the dictionary, let me suggest it as your next airplane or bedside book.

Slaw, too, is a decent illustration of the wisdom of a good crowd. We complement and correct and supplement and engross and praise and critique each other’s posts, so that you get a nourishing, well, slaw. And, too, it’s somewhat like the OED in the way it’s made: small slips of information get sent in one by one over time until before you know it, we’ve got nearly 3000 posts and 4000 comments. All blogs are a little like the OED in that they’re composed peu à peu — and published serially, too: the OED came out in parts across decades.

The OED was a creature of the Royal Mail in a way. Definitions and corrections were sent in to the centre from around the globe, often in great numbers. Now it’s no longer the mails — sorry Canada Post, despite your Second Life life — but rather the internet that brings in the material. The point is that it can and does come from anywhere. Slaw, of course, has contributors from nearly every province and commenters from many countries. The moral here may be that crowds can be as wise as they like but if they haven’t the freedom and ability to assemble nothing will come of their smarts.

And this ability to communicate without being face to face meant for the OED, I think, not only that far-flung intelligences could participate in the project, but also that people who were shy or awkward in the company of others or generally introverted could get involved thanks to the ability of writing to reflect a constructed persona. The internet, for good and ill, has liberated many otherwise inhibited people to participate in the general chatter. Of course, here at Slaw the chattering class of contributor, however -verted, has interesting things to say, which is all for the good.

Ah, but the OED endures and blogs come and go. Indeed, the OED does endure, now in an online guise as well, whereas Slaw and other blogs seem pretty much bound up, so to speak, in ephemeral digital dots and dahses. (I am thinking, though, of how we might draw together and preserve some of the valuable material that Slaw has created; so if you have any ideas I’d be glad to hear them.) And now I leave you with a couple of words to draw this all together:

Oxford English Dictionary

blog, n.
= *WEBLOG n. 2.

weblog, n.
… 2. A frequently updated web site consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person, and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary.


  1. A day later I learn about LingoZ, an online dictionary in various languages that is built by the crowd:

    “We aim to prove that a user contributed dictionary who is subject to the community moderation can be as accurate and of high quality as a “regular” dictionary, while evolving and being updated faster than any other source.”

    Hmm. I’m sceptical.