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Magazines > ONLINE > May/June 2011
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Online Magazine

Vol. 35 No. 3 — May/June 2011

Words to the Wise
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Authors, editors, and online searchers have at least one trait in common—the enjoyment of words. That’s not to say it’s a perpetual love affair. The strain of finding just the right word, whether it’s for an article or a search statement, is not the most satisfying of endeavors. In fact, it can be hugely frustrating. Sometimes it’s not as enjoyable as we’d like.

There are times when we think we know exactly what we mean, but it comes out all wrong. Take this pharmacy sign as an example: “We dispense with accuracy.” Doubtless the sign is meant to tout the accuracy of the pharmacological concoctions, but it conveys the opposite, given diverging meanings of the word “dispense.” These slight differences can be disastrous. An old cartoon (I’m paraphrasing here) has a teacher telling wide-eyed students gazing in fascination/horror at a computer screen that there’s a difference between “fertility practices” and “fertilization practices” when viewing videos.

Language is slippery. It changes over time, presenting other challenges to online researchers. If you use yesterday’s standard descriptive phrase, you may miss a recent item using today’s nomenclature. As we add social media to our research toolboxes, we contend with vernacular language, abbreviations, and condensed words. Researching genetically modified agriculture? Try Frankenfoods as a term. How about an automobile’s speed? A Google employee suggested “zero to sixty” as the most effective search phrase.

What about controlled vocabularies? In graduate schools of library and information science, professors extol the value of indexing. Use the proper thesaurus term and your search results will be more relevant, more targeted, and just plain better. Much of the time, this is true. But the meanings of terms that were applied decades ago could have changed over time. New words to describe social activities, natural phenomena, political movements, business dealings, and even scientific attributes evolve. Have the databases done retrospective updating? Should they? The Library of Congress, for one, has been amazingly progressive about the updating of its subject terminology.

Even in our own world, the terms keywords, metadata, thesauri, descriptors, and index terms are too often used as synonyms. Technically, they have different meanings, but common usage is blurring the distinctions.

As search technology improves, the promise is that semantic analysis will yield better results because it will know what we want even if it isn’t exactly the words we entered in a search box. Will semantic search eliminate the need for human intervention? I’m guessing not. No, I’m hoping not.

What information professionals bring to the table is the ability to understand the many meanings of words, to analyze search results for relevancy, and to explain to others why a particular search result is useful and how it relates to the overarching goal of the research in progress. Information professionals enjoy words for the value they bring to the research process. We would like to trust the search engines to surface relevant results, but we understand that a human grasp of the intricacies, innuendos, and insinuations implicit in language affect search results, whether we’re searching the open web or subscription databases.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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