THE BLOG
04/22/2008 10:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Big Word Project: Don't Like What a Word Means? Buy It and Change It

"There's glory for you!"

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,' " Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is, " said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

From "Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll

I have long been a fan of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I loved that the story was driven by a female heroine. But I also loved how both works were engaged in extensive word play. The above being one of the many spots where Carroll takes on meaning making and how people commandeer it, whether rightfully or not.

Words get invented all of the time. Sometimes out of necessity, like "Internet" or "blogging" and other times because of spoken language or group specific language like "dis" or "bogart." Other times, language is "taken back" in order to reign in its negative connotation like the use of the "n word" by some members of the Black community or the use of the word "queer" by members of the LGBT community. In other words, if we call ourselves that, you can't use that word against us.

Words are powerful things. They are how we communicate and how we, for better or for worse, define ourselves and others. I feel that pull constantly in terms of what vocabulary I choose when talking about myself, my life, and the choices I have made about both. Sometimes I'm judged based on things that couldn't be further from the truth but are assumed about me because of words that have multiple and even conflicting meanings. I say what I mean and someone takes it to mean something altogether different.

The definitions of words are also being invented and reinvented all the time. And definitions are funny things. They morph and change and they are not always agreed upon. Many people want, like Humpty Dumpty, words to mean what they want them to mean, nothing more, nothing less. Interestingly enough, that's now possible for a dollar a letter. Sort of. Confused? So was I. Enter the "Big Word Project."

Twenty-two-year-old Paddy Donnelly and twenty-three-year-old Lee Munroe, both from Belfast, Northern Ireland, wanted to test out their skills in web applications and viral marketing. So they created the "Big Word Project" where they could sell words without the use of any traditional advertising. Instead, they would rely entirely on blogging and social networking sites.

The idea behind the project is to allow people to redefine words using their own websites as the new definition. It's an interesting study in terms of the way in which different words means different things to different people. And, Donnelly says, people "have been choosing words for a variety of reasons, some obvious, some not so. It's really interesting to browse through the vast range of redefined words so far and seeing where they take you."

But the two don't pull any punches about their motivation to do the project. They have an interest in words, no question, but they also needed a way "to fund ourselves through University and get our names out there as professional web designers," Donnelly explains. They knew that collaborating with a large number of people, much like what was done with Wikipedia, was the key.

Their hard work and research paid off, over two hundred people, that they know of, are already blogging about it, and the international press is starting to pay attention too from newspapers to radio to a piece in May's issue of Wired magazine. The site's "received over 30,000 hits since its launch and, as of writing, we've sold over 2800 words," Donnelly says. And the site has only been around for six weeks.

Munroe describes the success of the project as being based on two things. One, "it is a cheap way of advertising your site and getting some traffic for a particular word" and, two, "people also seem to enjoy the story behind the project and the novelty of owning their own word and associating it with their website." One hundred words, chosen at random each time the site comes up, are displayed on the homepage in hopes that every visit will inspire the visitor's curiosity. "We've had a lot of feedback from people saying they've spent hours just clicking on different words to see where it takes them," Munroe explains. Plus, "Having more links on more websites can also potentially help towards Search Engine Optimization and getting seen by search engines."

Their hope is to "redefine" the entire dictionary. They still have over 170,000 words available and are willing to add words upon request. "However, the word has to be in the Oxford English Dictionary and we're not including names or places," says Munroe. And they have already had requests for sites to be created in other languages. And while they initially expected to only run the "Big Word Project" until January of 2013, they are already talking about keeping it up far longer based on people's interest in it.

And, of course, they are blogging about the entire experience as they go.

It's a clever concept. People love to own things and everyone likes to be the last word as to what something means. Will it last? Who knows. Who would have thought that someone could have sold a million pixels at a dollar a pop. I know I raced to the computer to buy my words. One that I wanted was taken. But I managed to purchase a few. As to which ones they were, well, I'll leave that up to you to figure out.