Sunday, February 22, 2004

Wizard of the New Wordsmiths: "George Miller is still not sure what he was thinking when he set out to write his own dictionary. By his own definition he was mad (meaning 'brainsick, crazy, demented, distracted, disturbed, sick, unbalanced, unhinged - affected with madness or insanity').

Nearly two decades ago, the Princeton University psychology professor needed a decent computerized dictionary to help devise experimental tests to determine how children's brains learn language. The major dictionary publishers, however, all wanted several thousand dollars in fees before they would turn over their software.

'I said, 'The hell with you. I'll make my own dictionary,'' recalled Miller, 81. So the Princeton professor got a small government grant and a stack of dictionaries and set out to type in all the nouns. His wife took the adjectives, while a colleague took the verbs. With that, WordNet and the next generation of dictionaries were born.

Instead of just listing the words and their definitions, Miller decided to show how every word is linked to another. Type in the word 'tree' and the user gets not only the definition, synonyms and antonyms, but the hypernyms (a tree is a kind of what?), meronyms (what are the parts of a tree?) and more. The user can also find a list of thousands of trees, from yellowwood to the Tree of Knowledge, and even all words that contain the letters t-r-e-e.

At last count, the WordNet had grown into an unprecedented web of 138,838 English words linked hundreds of thousands of different ways. Linguists call Miller's project one of the biggest leaps for dictionaries since scholars sat down to write the epic Oxford English Dictionary in 1879."
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