The WildWords Project:About

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The purpose of this site is to be a collaborative encyclopedic-dictionary to be used as a resource for students, faculty, staff, alumni, prospective and newly admitted students that are part of the Northwestern University speech community.

Like any dictionary, entries may be biased. We have tried to reduce bias present in our project as much as possible, but this site should not be upheld as the absolute authority of language used at Northwestern.

As language is a continually evolving human tool, WildWords is in no way trying to prescribe or dictate how Northwestern individuals should speak. Rather, our goal is to describe the language currently in use as we see it.

(For general information about the course connected to the WildWords project, please scroll down to the last section of this page).

Bias Present in Dictionaries

All dictionaries, whether in print or online form, contain some amount of bias. This is due to the research methods used to elicit words and verify their definitions, the dictionary’s phrasing of definitions and examples, and the dictionary’s choice in including (or excluding) certain words.

The research methodology used can bias dictionaries in several ways. These include the speech communities sampled, the representativeness of the sample, the number of people sampled, and the elicitation techniques used. Like all academic research, linguistic research becomes subject to error when this methodology is flawed, even unintentionally.

Additionally, an author or editor’s choice in the phrasing of a definition can lead to bias. Take for example the words black and white. In the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, the word black is defined almost solely in a negative connotation (i.e. “something very dark” or “dirty”), and in only one entry out of more than fifty lines of text does one find a positive connotation listed (“no 22, in the black”) despite other positive connotations of black existing (i.e. black tie event). In the case of white, the opposite is true and no entry exists in this dictionary with a negative connotation (as in “white as a ghost”). The same holds true for black and white in terms of the examples included for word usage (Duncan, 1970). The simple act of phrasing a word’s definitions or in specifying examples can lead to large amounts of bias being present in dictionaries.

Furthermore, the words included in a dictionary can be subject to bias. Some dictionaries will exclude slang, derogatory words, and nonstandard language believing such words to be a lesser form of language use. Others will exclude such words to avoid associating that dictionary with words deemed “inappropriate”. This, however, is in direct opposition with the goal of a dictionary to describe the language in use. Lastly, entries in both online and print dictionaries become dated at the moment of publication (Duncan, 1970). Language is continuously evolving, so the word usage defined in a dictionary becomes outdated as soon as an entry has been published. Online dictionaries can avoid some of the difficulties of this by allowing entries to be continuously updated, but even these entries will be subject to the specific word usage at the time of the last update.

Our encyclopedic dictionary project seeks to avoid bias wherever possible. However, we understand that no matter the precautions we take, our dictionary will still be subject to unintentional bias. As such, WildWords is not meant to be the definitive authority of language use at Northwestern University. Rather, we seek to describe as much of the language in use at Northwestern as possible. Despite our best intentions, it is impossible to include every word in use by the Northwestern speech community. Furthermore, it is impossible to represent every usage of the words that are included. But we seek to be as inclusive and representative as possible, and in so doing, mitigate as much bias as possible in our work.


Duncan, William Walter, How "White" is your Dictionary? , ETC; a Review of General Semantics, 27 (1970) p.89

How we do our fieldwork

In order to obtain the most accurate and authentic entries for WildWords, sociolinguistic fieldwork was completed in the forms of surveys, interviews, and natural observation of different speech communities. Using several methods of data-collection, as opposed to using a single method, helps to maintain the authenticity of speech used in various speech communities at Northwestern.

Despite our best efforts to obtain the most accurate information about the speech in different speech communities through sociolinguistic fieldwork, it is important to note the effect of the observer’s paradox and the extent to which it is overcome. The observer’s paradox arises when a researcher is gathering data on natural speech. Aware of the researcher’s presence, speakers are more likely to use more formal speech than they would ordinarily. This produces data that is not representative of speakers’ typical language usage. Essentially, data collection is undermined by the researcher’s presence.

How submissions are verified

One of the risks of a collaborative dictionary project is the possibility that not all entries will be equally representative of the way words are used in the Northwestern speech community. For this reason, we have instituted a variety of methods for readers to examine the veracity of the entries on WildWords. Many of the entries in WildWords come from students in the “Making a Dictionary” Slavic 322/Linguistics 363 class, and so attain the information for their entries through conducting fieldwork. Conducting fieldwork helps ensure that the entries are representative of how the population uses language rather than how one individual defines a word. For more information on fieldwork please read the section “How we do our fieldwork”.

That being said, because this is a collaborative dictionary, not all of the entries will have fieldwork supporting them. For this reason, we encourage readers to comment on entries on their discussion pages to note any agreements or disagreements with the published information. This feedback will not only help support the authenticity of entries, but also provide a way to communicate the information that an entry might be lacking, like an alternate definition or pronunciation of a term. Readers are encouraged to peruse these discussion pages and comment on them with their own experiences.

One final way we verify the entries in WildWords is by polling the readers. Indicating whether or not you have heard, are familiar with, or use a term will communicate to other readers how widely used a given word is in the Northwestern speech community. This allows the community to react to the entries they see in WildWords and connect them to their own experiences in the Northwestern community.

Generally about the Course that creates and works on WildWords

The WildWords encyclopedic dictionary is the result of work from the cross-listed course at Northwestern University: LING 363/SLAVIC 322 Making a Dictionary: The Northwestern Project. The course is offered every year by Prof. Elisabeth Elliott and is a collaboration with Northwestern's Multimedia Learning Center (MMLC). LING 363/SLAVIC 322 has no prereqs, fulfills an Area III Social & Behavioral Science distro, and is a flipped course, where much of the the design of the course and what is accomplished with WildWords depends on the goals of the students. In other words, students are expected to be collaborators in this course and the project, not just followers. If you are interested in working on WildWords, learning more about lexicography, dictionaries (including prejudice in dictionaries), the making of dictionaries, as well as gain experience in editing, using, and understanding limits of some digital tools (at least WordPress and Wiki Media) and learn to be responsible collaborators and how to effectively work in groups, please take this class.

More about this class will eventually be added here. In the meantime, please feel free to review the course's CTECs, view its full description on CAESAR, and/or contact Prof. Elisabeth Elliott for more information or with your questions.