21 September 2008

Wordia as a platform for narrative?

Interesting post by Sebastian Mary at if:book about Wordia, a new site that allows users to upload video definitions of words. She suggests that Wordia raises questions of usage and power in dictionaries -- questions at least as old as Samuel Johnson's great work of 1755 -- and I don't dispute that. I wonder, though, if there's a more interesting connection between dictionaries and narrative at work in Wordia.

In her video definiton of "Panda" here (what, no embed feature?! I had to go to Youtube!), a young woman defines 'panda' in relation to the black circles she gets around her eyes if she doesn't take off her make-up at night:

This is not the kind of definition you'd get in a dictionary, not even in Wiktionary or the Urban Dictionary. First of all, it doesn't help define the word prescriptively (as Wiktionary, like print dictionaries, tries to do); nor does it help define the word descriptively (as Urban Dictionary does by counting slang uses among its definitions). In other words, this young woman doesn't situate the term in a social context, but in a personal one.

For me, 'panda' immediately brings up the image of the sneezing panda; then, maybe some funny videos my brother brought back from China. I also hear the term 'unfit', after a kind of running joke Phil and I have about pandas. While these images all connect to the prescriptive, external, "objective" definition of 'panda' as a black-and-white bear-like creature from the mountains of China, they do so by identifying that unique thread that connects me to my own language. No one else shares this thread between themselves and 'panda' -- for each person it's unique -- yet, somehow, altogether, this collective mass of sounds create enough meaning for us all to be able to communicate effectively. It's pretty crazy, really. I like that Wordia makes me see that.

I also wonder if Wordia can become a platform for narrative. I recently finished a startingly imaginative novel, The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. It's written in the form of three separate encyclopedias, each entry describing an event, an artifact or a person relating to the lost story fo the Khazar people from either a Christian, a Jewish or a Muslim perspective. The reader can read the entries in any order she wants, in fact is encouraged to. Yet somehow, by the end of the novel, it's formed into a coherent whole. The process of the Dictionary is an interesting metaphor for how language works, and might also be an interesting model for how narrative could be injected into Wordia. Would I ever go to Wordia for an actual definition, of the kind I get in Webster's? Or would I, instead, go to hear stories about words, and how we relate to them?

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