Erin McKean doesn’t look much like a revolutionary. She speaks softly. She sews her own skirts and writes a daily blog entry about vintage patterns. She does work out of a basement, but it’s got carpeting and good lighting and roughly 1,500 books, many of whose titles involve the word “words.” Her suburban Chicago home is not exactly the picture of subversion.
This week, though, she is slated to launch what may be the biggest revolution in the printed word since, well, printed words.
Ms. McKean’s brainchild is called Wordnik, and it combines the best practices of the old-fashioned desk reference with Internet innovations. Words can be tagged like a blog entry, their pronunciation recorded and replayed like streaming radio, their related words cataloged like a list of books customers also bought at an online book depot. When the paper page gives way to the Web page, everything about the way we think of words will change, McKean says. “This project,” she predicts in a quiet voice devoid of bravado, “is going to completely revolutionize all of dictionarymaking forever.”
Granted, a dictionary is closer to a database than a mystery thriller, its authors nothing like, say, John Grisham. But to McKean, nothing has ever seemed more fascinating than collecting and organizing American words.