Just added to the dictionary…

DVR” is now a word. (You can see the whole list of Merriam-Webster’s new words for 2007.)

In the early days, I recall a lot of debate about what we should call the category of device for TiVo. At first we were pushing “PVR,” for Personal Video Recorder. In a 1999 management meeting (back when TiVo was small enough that every single manager, director and VP could meet in a single conference room every week), I remember Mike Ramsay, TiVo’s co-founder and first CEO, agreeing to reach out to Anthony Wood, founder of ReplayTV, to see if TiVo and Replay could reach consensus on whether the category should be DVR or PVR. I think Anthony and Mike were not on speaking terms at the time (too many lawsuits), so no consensus was reached. Which was a shame, because many stores and e-commerce web sites then went ahead and made up their own categories for us, using odd terms such as “TV servers.”

I also remember that in our manuals and interface screens, we initially had the device call itself a Receiver. (“Your Receiver needs to change channels.”) Then we switched to Recorder. Then one CE partner wanted to call it a “Unit.” (“Your Unit needs to restart.”) We didn’t want to call it a Unit; not only would the manuals and screens and customer support documentation have to change, but it was a stupid name. One unlucky program manager drew the short straw and had to write an e-mail to the CE to tell them that we hated their proposed name. Among other reasons she listed for why we wanted to reject their proposal, she told them that “unit” could be taken as obscene slang. The CE reps took a while to respond, but eventually they politely said that they had never heard of such slang usage, but even so customers would understand the word “unit” correctly in context. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at work. Eventually a VP talked them out of “Unit” and back into “Recorder.”

Nowadays, I believe all of our units call themselves DVRs. (“Your DVR has new software!”) So it’s good that Merriam-Webster has formally blessed “DVR” with word status.

* * *

However, while the DVR definition is fine, I think many of M-W’s definitions for their inaugurated 2007 words are poorly written. (I’ve never had that much respect for M-W as a dictionary, although I do default to using their web page when I want to look up a word quickly.)

Particularly egregious is their definition of telenovela:

a soap opera produced in and televised in or from many Latin-American countries

Oh? So a soap opera produced only in Mexico but not any other country is not a telenovela? How many Latin-American countries need to be involved before it is a telenovela?

Back when I was a UC Berkeley Linguistics undergrad, in Linguistics 105, we had a unit (hah!) on writing dictionary definitions. All I remember is how hard it was to write a good definition — bang-your-head-against- the-wall-for- hours-searching- for-just-the- right-phrase hard. But it’s awfully easy to mock a bad definition.

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