Wiktionary: who decides?

Many of the entries for subject-specific terms in Wiktionary have been specially written and edited by subject experts.

However the definitions of more ‘everyday’ words have sometimes just been copied from other dictionaries, as Michael Rundell (2015) points out in Lexikos (see further reading). To avoid copyright problems, contributors often choose very old dictionaries to copy from, such as Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, which was published in 1913. This means that alongside the new original material in Wiktionary we can also find old meanings and old lexicographical practices.

Wiktionary is a collaborative dictionary, as we saw in Step 1.16. It operates on a consensus basis, and there is no committee or body in authority over changes and updates. Each contributor is considered an ‘editor’ with equal rights and responsibilities to uphold the aims and policies of the site. Detailed advice is provided on how to present new contributions, but it is always possible for contributors to deviate from the suggested formats. They are simply warned that others may disagree with them, and that they must be prepared to argue in support of any changes they want to make.

The history of each new addition to the dictionary is made very clear on the Wiktionary site. Each word carries the date it was first included, and each entry has a ‘Revision History’ page which includes every ‘save event’ ever made on that page. This means that every addition, change or deletion to that entry is recorded. Old pages are available for immediate review, and users can track exactly how an entry has developed. Wiktionary is updated hundreds if not thousands of times a day, because every time a contributor presses ‘save’ on an entry, the entire site updates.

In addition to the ‘Revision History’, Wiktionary also has discussion forums. The Tea Room is the central discussion point, where users are directed to open up discussion threads on any entries they wish to seek others’ opinion about. The Beer Parlour is for ‘general policy discussions and proposals, requests for permissions and major announcements’.

The Tea Room can occasionally become the site of non-linguistic disagreements, often beginning with a language question (possibly from a non-native speaker) which degenerates into a political or religious argument (see for example ‘enemy combatant’). These often involve non-registered users who cannot be identified except in terms of their IP address.

Wiktionary has clear inclusion criteria, and the information on the Wiktionary site shows us exactly how the dictionary is being developed. On the negative side, Wiktionary does not draw on corpus evidence, and therefore cannot record attested word forms and meanings if human contributors fail to notice them.

Your task

Explore the Wiktionary discussion forums Tea Room and the Beer Parlour.

Share with others a link to a discussion you find interesting, and add a comment with your reasons why.

References

Rundell, M. (2015) ‘From Print to Digital: Implications for Dictionary Policy and Lexicographic Conventions’. Lexikos 25 [online]. available from: http://lexikos.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/1301

Further reading

Abel, A., and Meyer, C. M. (2013) ‘The Dynamics Outside the Paper Contributions to Online Dictionaries’. Proceedings of the eLex 2013 Conference, Electronic Lexicography in the 21st Century: Thinking Outside the Paper. held 17-19 October 2013 at Tallinn, Estonia, 179-194 [online]. available from: http://eki.ee/elex2013/proceedings/eLex2013_13_Abel+Meyer.pdf

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University