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I was browsing old questions and answers and bumped into an odd scenario: Can “paper bag” mean any bag?. An excerpt from the accepted answer:

Almost all on-line dictionaries define paper bag as:

A bag made of paper or plastic for holding customer's purchases

I did some quick research and added a comment voicing my opinion that the online dictionaries were in error. The actual question for meta is this: How trustworthy is WordNet?

WordNet's definition for paper bag appears to have been copied onto dictionary.reference.com and thefreedictionary.com. Both of those sites credit WordNet; WordNet credits itself.

Doing other searches (such as "bag" or "paper") reveal WordNet as merely a part of a larger body of sources for those two sites. It appears that WordNet is just being picked up as one of the many sourceable dictionaries available to compilation sites. For comparison, Merriam-Webster choked on the query for "paper bag". Google's define:paper bag pointed back to WordNet.

Until today I had been blindly trusting the internet's dictionaries. It appears that there may be a few caveats. Namely, I need to start checking where the definitions are actually coming from. The first step in this, for me, is asking about WordNet. Does anyone else have any opinions or experiences with WordNet, good or bad?

  • 1
    I expect most dictionaries - paper as well as online - contain at least one error close to or beyond this level of inaccuracy. I don't use Wordnet much, but if anything seemed odd online I'd check my OED or Chambers. Not with blind faith, but I pretty much trust them after all these years. – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '11 at 1:22
  • From what I could gather, WordNet was created by linguists seeking to create networks based on word relations such as synonymy. It was not intended to be a descriptivists lexical definition archive, a.k.a. a 'dictionary'. The OED is considered to be the most reputable source for definitions and etymological information, as far as I know. I only regret that the OED is essentially inaccessible to the average person. There are the Oxford Online Dictionaries, which are related so far as I can tell, but it is still not up to the standard and quality of the OED. The search continues... – Arammil Feb 2 at 2:45
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Hm. I'm not sure WordNet is actually giving that definition for paper bag. I think the definition is of the synonym set "sack, poke, paper bag, carrier bag". Naturally, since very few synonyms are exact, some of the words in the list don't match the definition completely.

That said, I agree that it's confusing to state it that way. The bigger problem is that the various other sites that import the definition from WordNet don't preserve the synonym list, and thus end up giving a misleading definition for paper bag.


Looking up paper bag on OneLook Dictionary Search, it links to the following:

  1. Wordnik [this is another aggregator, which shows definitions from WordNet, American Heritage Dictionary, Century Dictionary, Wiktionary, GNU Webster's 1913, and "elsewhere on the Web". Of those dictionaries, only WordNet is listed as having a definition.]
  2. Dictionary.com ( = WordNet)
  3. Wikipedia: "A paper bag or paper sack is a preformed container made of paper, usually with an opening on one side."
  4. Rhymezone ( = WordNet)
  5. Free Dictionary ( = WordNet)
  6. Mnemonic Dictionary ( = WordNet)
  7. WordNet 1.7 Vocabulary Helper ( == WordNet)
  8. LookWAYup Translating Dictionary/Thesaurus ( = WordNet)
  9. TheFreeDictionary.com ( = WordNet)

OneLook indexes a lot more dictionaries than that, but it appears most of them do not have an entry for "paper bag" (understandable, given that the meaning of the compound is exactly equivalent to the sum of the meanings of its components).


Bottom line: I don't think we can condemn WordNet based on one confusingly-worded definition (for a term that probably doesn't need a separate dictionary entry in the first place). However, it's definitely a good idea to have another dictionary in your arsenal, one that doesn't just crib from WordNet. Alternatively, if you're only going to bookmark a single online dictionary, make it an aggregator such as Wordnik or OneLook, instead of a single-source dictionary such as Merriam-Webster, Wiktionary, or WordNet.

  • This is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. Thanks. :) – MrHen Apr 7 '11 at 1:52
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I agree with what Martha stated. I'd like to point out that WordNet isn't a dictionary per se, but is called a lexical database. The About page and Wikipedia's article both have useful overviews. Wikipedia says

It groups English words into sets of synonyms called synsets, provides short, general definitions, and records the various semantic relations between these synonym sets. The purpose is twofold: to produce a combination of dictionary and thesaurus that is more intuitively usable, and to support automatic text analysis and artificial intelligence applications.

  • +1 for actually reading the manual, even if you misspelled my name. :) – Marthaª Apr 8 '11 at 14:27
  • Sorry for the typo, Martha. My typing and proofing gets poor at times. – mgkrebbs Apr 8 '11 at 17:22
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As mgkrebbs said, WordNet is mainly for machines, not for humans. Sources which blindly include its content as definitions, like those you mentioned, are clearly untrustworthy and should never be used as references. These sites usually only exist to attract clicks from search engines, not to provide real content.

By contrast, Wiktionary is an open data and free culture copyleft dictionary made and manually curated by humans. There is some automatic maintenance of various kinds and some public domain resources were largely imported, such as as the Webster's Dictionary, 1913, but these are actual dictionaries too. Hence, Wiktionary's quality is generally superior, as proven by ample research, and it's generally fine to use it as learning resource, albeit with a grain of salt.

See my answer https://english.meta.stackexchange.com/a/7314/130551 for details on how StackExchange and Wiktionary entries can help each other.

  • Hijacking a question that doesn't mention Wiktionary to promote your favoured sites is generally frowned on here. – TimLymington Nov 20 '15 at 22:32
  • @TimLymington I did not do such a thing, because Wiktionary is not my (most) favoured (dictionary) site. Did you read the research I linked, which explains why I mention Wiktionary to answer the question? meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Research:Newsletter/2015/… If you know other scientific assessments of WordNet, I encourage you to add your own answer; in the meanwhile, I answered with the scientific assessments I knew about. – Nemo Nov 20 '15 at 23:28

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