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Michele Turner helps navigate the world of words as Dictionary.com CEO

Sports talk for Michele and Brad Turner can take an odd turn on occasion. For example, picture the couple sitting in their Portola Valley home, watching the recent NBA finals on TV.

The conversation might have gone something like this:

Brad: "Look at that -- they're carrying him to the bench. He's such a flopper!"

Michele: "A what?"

Brad: "A flopper. You haven't heard that word before? Even our 13-year-old and his buddies are using it these days. It means pretending you've been hit or hurt so the ref will call a foul on your opponent."

Michele (excitedly scribbling in a notebook): "Sounds like time for my Super Star Word Team to grab this ball and score 3 points for the language!"

Though exaggerated for narrative appeal, this scenario isn't total make-believe. The Turners did have a similar exchange one warm June evening during the basketball finals, and as a result, users of the popular language resource Dictionary.com will someday soon be able to look up "flop" and see among the definitions a reference to its new usage in the basketball world. That's because last September, Michele Turner took the helm of the Oakland-based online dictionary, and has since trained her spyglass full time on the ever-changing horizon of English language and usage.

New words, old words, shifting definitions and etymology are all on the menu of Dictionary.com, which attracts some 70 million users each month. The site also offers a Word of the Day feature, to which some 20 million people subscribe, a thesaurus, and commentaries on language and its evolving usage.

Ms. Turner came to the company's CEO post from the world of high-tech product development, and a primary focus for her has been to refresh the 19-year-old site, she says. One of the technological changes now in the works will allow the lexicography team to add words to the online dictionary "as often as needed," instead of quarterly. But even though the updates are too infrequent for her taste at this point, the site adds some 800 new words and revised definitions every three months, she says.

After the recent exchange with her husband about "flopping," Ms. Turner began her quest for past references of the word. Among her finds: an online ESPN article, which she sent to staff lexicographer Jane Solomon, "who then flagged the definition to be updated in order to cover the sports terminology," she explains in an email. It's an example, she says, "of how we're constantly watching for how words evolve and work to stay up with definitions."

Changing language, changing site

Dictionary.com has its roots in the Random House Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus, and an in-house team of lexicographers is supplemented by an East Coast group formerly affiliated with Random House, according to Ms. Turner.

The technological updates soon to be put in place at Dictionary.com will boost the site's ability "to be vibrant and bold" while maintaining its status as an "authoritative and credible source" for word lovers and language learners, Ms. Turner says during a recent interview at Konditorei cafe in Ladera. "We want to bring words to life."

Asked how that might be done, she describes strategies designed to appeal to a range of users -- from elementary school, middle school, high school and college students, to adult English learners, to the rest of us, who just want to know what on earth hibernaculum means and how to use it in a sentence.

Ms. Turner says one technique to make words come alive is one not available to print dictionaries: sound. "The audio pronunciation function is the most highly used feature on the site," she notes, adding that it's one indication of how many English-language learners turn to Dictionary.com.

Enlivening the language for young students is also a key goal use of the site soars during school days, Ms. Turner notes, and she is looking for ways to improve the experience for those users.

For example, the site has a Flashcards app "that's great for teaching kids in grades 4-8 vocabulary and roots," she says. But she recently spoke with Corte Madera School English teachers Jeff Mead (Grade 8) and Donna Kasprowicz (Grade 7) to get their perspective on how the state's new Common Core standards would change what kids in those grade levels need to learn.

"Jeff actually gave me the idea for our Word of the Day feed on Instagram, which has turned out to be one of our best social media features," she says.

As with many online enterprises, social media is becoming increasingly important for the word site, Ms. Turner says, and the team is working on ideas such as using social media to ask kids what they're reading in the summer to offer them helpful resources. "If they're reading, say, 'Romeo and Juliet,' we could (include) difficult words" from that play to enrich their understanding of the work, she says.

Ms. Turner has gotten welcome advice from a 12-year-old Oakland girl whom she mentored through Spark, a nonprofit program for bright, at-risk kids. The girl wanted to learn about what being a CEO was all about, and in turn, she gathered feedback for the Dictionary.com team on how the site was being used by students and teachers at her school, Ms. Turner says. A key take-away: Develop more ways to deliver the service through apps, "because those kids are all about phones."

A 22-year resident of Portola Valley, Ms. Turner recognizes the disparity in opportunities for learning and success between children of affluence and those living in poorer communities. She lights up when discussing her work's potential to improve people's lives not only young people, but those trying to learn English as well.

"To me, what we're about is empowerment," she says. "You can really empower people by improving literacy. If you look throughout history, enabling literacy in a society (was) to improve society."

Many users of the word site are "people who are trying to better themselves," she continues. "If you can work in tech and (help people) do that at the same time -- that's awesome! It's a great marriage for me."

Combining skills, passion

Before coming to Dictionary.com, Ms. Turner was chief product officer of mBlox, a Sunnyvale-based mobile tech company. Her resume also includes stints at Adobe, Netflix, Excite@Home and AOL, among other companies.

In college, she initially majored in broadcast journalism and minored in film, "so you could say my love of words was there from the start, and I really wanted to get into something involving communications," she says.

But while working her way through school as an accountant, she discovered an aptitude for numbers, and switched her major to finance. "But I didn't love finance, I was just good at it. My jump to product development was pure serendipity I ended up getting recruited into Silicon Graphics as a product manager, and grew my product career there," she says. The career has been satisfying for one who thrives on "helping to get a new innovation into the world," she adds.

At her current job, the self-described avid reader and word lover gets "the chance to work with words and language, and it's this great combination of developing products in an area that I've been drawn to my entire life," she says.

As CEO, her day-to-day focus is much broader than words and language, however. "There are tons of really smart people" working at Dictionary.com, she says, and she sees her job there as "setting (the company's) 'true north' and then making sure all the boats take the right course. And making sure they're getting there at the same speed."

At the same time, she's constantly keeping an eye and an ear open for changes in the language. Always helpful in that enterprise are kids, and she's well-positioned to pick up on emerging twists, turns and additions to the language by the presence of the three Turner children: Cole, 15; Shane, 13; and Teagan, 11.

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