Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Wordnik Gets Serious with Synonyms

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2010

In one of her Boston Globe columns last year, which I can’t seem to locate, Erin McKean explained the concept of her online dictionary Wordnik. The starting premise was that a definition was intended to be a distillation of a word’s meaning, as induced from reading many examples of that word in context. The reason for creating such a thing is that it’s impractical in printed form to include all those examples. (The OED tries to, and look how big it is.) In the age of the Internet, though, there’s no obstacle to doing just that, with examples continually added.

Wordnik has now taken this concept and extended it to the thesaurus. The most interesting feature, and the one touted in an emailed press release, is that in thesaurus mode, you can compare the collected examples for two synonyms. The way it works is that you look up a word and you’ll get a list of synonyms, as you’d expect. Then on the right you can click the “Compare” button, which allows you to check the boxes for the two words you want to compare. You can compare the word you looked up with one of its synonyms, or forget about the word you looked up and check out two of its synonyms. In a pop-up window, side-by-side entries will appear with the definitions. Click on “Examples” at the top of the window, and then you get the side-by-side examples.

In the press release, Wordnik’s director of product development, John McGrath, gave a couple of examples of the interesting, not obvious details about shades of meaning that the comparisons can give you:

Traditional online thesauruses … don’t tell you that people like brownies that are moist but not brownies that are damp, or that it doesn’t make sense to moisten your enthusiasm.
Want a more nuanced understanding of ‘vacant’ vs. ‘void’? Viewing their definitions and example sentences next to each other reveals that they’re not interchangeable: ‘vacant’ is often applied to jobs and properties, and ‘void’ often refers metaphorically to emptiness. Those nuances are missing from traditional online thesauruses and dictionaries.

I tried it out with the word delicious, and got off to a rough start. In regular definitions page, Wordnik lists synonyms ambrosial, delectable, luscious, scrumptious, toothsome, yummy. Where’s tasty? In thesaurus mode, it lists a disjoint set of synonyms, that still doesn’t include tasty: They are charming, delightful, effeminate, luxurious. Effeminate? I clicked to compare effeminate and delicious, but after comparing the examples, still didn’t see how the words were in any way synonymous.

I had better luck when I tried searching for tasty. This time in thesaurus mode, I got delicious as a synonym, which makes me wonder more about the synonym-finding algorithm. I also got palatable, elegant, and hetic? Hetic? A new one to me. Probably something of Greek origin. I clicked on it, and got examples like: “It has been a hetic week but we are getting back on schedule!” OK, never mind.

I then turned my attention to palatable, because it reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my wife when I brought home a tube of Viralys L0Lysine HCl Nutritional Supplement for our cat Nick. It was supposed to alleviate symptoms of a chronic virus he has.

“He’s not going to eat that,” she said.

“He might!” I said. “It’s palatable! Highly palatable! See, it says, ‘Viralys is a highly palatable gel,’ right here.”

I clicked to compare tasty and palatable, and this time came away with a meaning nuance I hadn’t been fully conscious of before: Both mean “good-tasting,” but palatable tends to refer to something that tastes good in a metaphorical sense, or something that you wouldn’t expect to taste good, or both; for example,

the only way it becomes even palatable is if it comes out of the 700 billion already allocated to fix the mess.

I guess the Viralys makers knew their synonyms in this case. Nick refuses to lick Viralys out of the tube, or even let us get it close enough to his nose to put a dab on there for him to lick off.

So, you may ask, how does Wordnik’s new thesaurus functionality compare with that other online thesaurus? Well, Visual Thesaurus is all about visual presentation, as the name suggests, with diagrams of lines and clickable nodes connecting the words, with words’ visual distance from each other representing difference in meaning, and labels on the lines indicating what kind of relationship holds between pairs of words. Wordnik’s presentation is all text. On the other hand, Wordnik has lots of in-context examples, sometimes hyperlinked, whereas Visual Thesaurus gives just one example, and only for selected words in a diagram. I’ll probably be using both, but I hope whatever glitch in Wordnik came up with synonyms for delicious/tasty like effeminate and hetic will be ironed out.

6 Responses to “Wordnik Gets Serious with Synonyms”

  1. Barrie said

    Maybe I haven’t looked closely enough, but neither seems to differentiate between word classes, and neither provides etymology.

  2. The Ridger said

    I must say that I’ve never seen a thesaurus with etymology. It seems out of their scope. On the other hand, I’d like one that gave argument structure: lots of my students change a word and leave the surrounding syntax as it was whether it still works or not.

  3. Ran said

    I haven’t found Wordnik very useful, but I hope it helps people to a better understanding of the descriptive, descriptivist nature of lexicography.

    By the way, I think I’d gloss “palatable” as something like “that one can bring oneself to eat; not so foul-tasting as to make eating difficult”. I don’t think it requires a prior expectation of not tasting good; “his cooking is barely palatable”, for example, seems perfectly fine to me.

    • Glen said

      I agree, to me ‘palatable’ always meant ‘tolerable’. Merriam-Webster sort of concurs: “palatable often applies to something that is found to be merely agreeable “

  4. Julie said

    Try smearing it on the most convenient paw (for you). Kitties like clean feet, and sooner or later he will lick it off.

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