07/09/2009 11:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn Off the C(H)uff: Erin McKean, Founder of the Awesomepants Site Wordnik

My last column on Shakespeare in the Park bemoaned the loss of the art of courtship by words. Then I learned in a unexpected but welcome counterpoint that Erin McKean's new website, Wordnik, had debuted.

I met Erin at a design conference some years back. She is a dynamo of both word and person, and this site sounds just like what the word doctor may have ordered. Why only a few days ago, someone was calling me "girlfriend" and I wondered what has happened to that many different meanings now contained therein. So I asked Erin to reconnect with me to talk about words and love and friendship.


Erin McKean: One of the things we like best about Wordnik is that folks can add tags to any word -- here are all the ones that have been tagged "love."

There are some great words on this list:


But it's probably better to talk about words that are about nuances of feeling: crushes and passions are different, right?

Culture Zohn: Yes. One has always been told that a crush is more of a temporary, perhaps physical thing whereas a passion is somehow more all-consuming. The French have an even better way of putting it, coup de foudre, which to me has always combined the two: an instantaneous, but fiery capture of the heart.

But Erin, what struck me in Twelfth Night was that words, spoken words, as opposed to songs, are losing ground when it comes to the art of love. What has happened since Shakespeare's time to inhibit people from thinking that an artful phrase can move the heart? Has email helped or hurt the turn of a fiery phrase?

EM:I did a whole book of these love idioms a while back (That's Amore ). It was really fun -- my favorite was Bulgarian, I can't remember the actual Bulgarian, but it was "the blind Sunday hit me" (i.e., I fell in love at first sight). I have no idea what Sunday has to do with it!

I think its [email] hurt it, because what if you write something and god forbid it gets forwarded? I know I've written stuff in email I wouldn't like to see on somebody's blog, and it wasn't even mushy (I've been married since before email)! ... there's this electronic trail, now, that you just don't get with paper and ink. A love letter is to be savored, a love email ... is to be forwarded to all your friends, and probably laughed at.

I think we should start a Valentine's Tweet on Valentine's Day next year, though. Best sentiment in 140 characters, minus the hashtag.

CZ: Absent actual love letters which don't seem to be in the cards, and not being a Twitterer myself as it leaves even less time for reflection, for savoring, what are our choices? I remembered that last year somebody was doing six-word sentences which, like haikus, at least caused a momentary lull in the barrage of noise. Words can be tools for seduction but they can also be weapons. It seems to me the internet has brought reading back, albeit in a different format. How do we encourage vocabulary as a contemporary art form?

: Oh I think that the internet is definitely encouraging linguistic creativity! Especially with new formations (weaksauce, awesomepants) and new tropes. It's not elegant, but it is creative!


Check out Wordnik daily. It's not painful like studying those endless lists for the SATs. You'd be surprised how much your words can move hearts and minds.