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Old-school word nerds meet the digital age

Wordnik, a new start-up that was inspired by a TED talk about the shortcomings of online dictionaries, addresses the problem with aggregated data and social media.

Now here's one you don't see every day: Wordnik, which launched out of private beta on Monday and states its mission as "discovering all the words and everything about them." Taking the basic premise of a dictionary, Wordnik supplements each entry with Web 2.0's tastiest treats--relevant Flickr images, Twitter search matches, user-contributed tags and comments--and then invites users to add their own words, too.

Calling itself a "project" rather than a company, Wordnik's origins are sort of like a dot-com fairy tale. CEO Erin McKean, then serving as editor-in-chief of Oxford University Press' American dictionaries, was giving a talk at the elite TED conference when she raised an issue for lexicographers--dictionary scientists--that, in her opinion, the digital age hadn't solved yet.

"There are so many more words than dictionaries can handle," McKean said to CNET News about the issue she raised at TED. "There's no program for anyone to go out and try to find all the words. People have been conditioned to be more or less content with what they've got." She has a point: many online dictionary sites are little more than digital replicas of their print predecessors.

As is often the case with TED, some pretty important people were listening in, including Silicon Valley venture capitalist Roger McNamee--now one of the investors in Wordnik, which McKean promptly co-founded with two lexicographers and an engineer. Now the Bay Area-based company has six full-time employees, and is launching with 1.7 million words in its directory.

McKean says she isn't too concerned yet about dealing with the pranksters and vandals who give Wikipedia its more-than-occasional headaches ("people have tended to be well behaved with us, and we're not sure how long that's going to last") and says that copyright issues shouldn't be too much of a problem ("there's about 400 years of precedent in terms of fair use in a dictionary"). Right now the priority is expansion. On the way, McKean said, are smartphone apps, a developer API, and a cleaned-up version of Wordnik for kids to use.

The site's design and depth of information leave a little bit to be desired (it lacks the smooth, words-meet-visuals feel of something like news aggregator Daylife), and McKean said that bringing more interesting and unexpected information to Wordnik is also on the agenda.

But Wordnik faces one of the same concerns that pretty much any information- or search-focused start-up does: what if the likes of Google create a competing product? McKean said that Wordnik's advantage is its team's dedication. "Nobody's going to have as much money as Google," she said, "but nobody's going to be as interested in this as I am and my lexicographer colleagues are."

Now check it out and go look up "bacon."