How a Word Enters the Dictionary: A Quick Primer

Giv­en that you’re read­ing this on the Inter­net, we pre­sume you’ll be able to define many of the over 800 words that were added to the Mer­ri­am-Web­ster dic­tio­nary in 2018:









But what about some of the humdingers lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er Kory Stam­per, for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor for Mer­ri­am-Web­ster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dic­tio­nar­ies, unleash­es in the above video?




ety­mo­log­i­cal fal­li­cist

(Bonus: bird strike)

And here we thought we were flu­ent in our native tongue. Face palm, to use anoth­er newish entry and an exam­ple of descrip­tivism. (It’s when the dic­tio­nary fol­lows the culture’s lead, accord­ing nov­el­ty its due by offi­cial­ly rec­og­niz­ing words that have entered the par­lance, rather than pre­scrib­ing the way cit­i­zens should be speak­ing.)

To hear Stam­per tell it, dic­tio­nary writ­ing is a dream gig for read­ers as well as word lovers.

Part of every day is spent read­ing, flag­ging any unfa­mil­iar words that may pop up for fur­ther research.

Did teenage slang give rise to it?

Was it born of busi­ness trends or tech indus­try advances?

Stam­per is adamant that lan­guage is not fixed, but rather a liv­ing organ­ism. Words go in and out of fash­ion, and take on mean­ings beyond the ones they sport­ed when first includ­ed in the dic­tio­nary. (Have a look at “extra” to see some evo­lu­tion­ary effects of the Eng­lish lan­guage and back it up with a peek inside the Urban Dic­tio­nary.)

Before a word pass­es dic­tio­nary muster, it must meet three cri­te­ria: it must have crossed into wide­spread use, it seems like­ly to stick around for a while, and it must have some sort of sub­stan­tive mean­ing, as opposed to being known sole­ly for its length (“antidis­es­tab­lish­men­tar­i­an­ism”), or some oth­er struc­tur­al won­der.

“Iouea” con­tains all five reg­u­lar vow­els and no oth­er let­ters. The fact that it exists to describe a genus of sea sponges may seem some­what beside the point to all but marine biol­o­gists.

What new words will enter the lex­i­con in 2019?

Per­haps we should look to the past. We set Merriam-Webster’s Time Trav­el­er dial back 100 years to dis­cov­er the words that debuted in 1919. There’s an abun­dance of good­ies here, some of whose WWI-era con­text has already expand­ed to accom­mo­date mod­ern mean­ing (anti-stress, fan­boy, super­pimp, unbuffered). Read­ers, care to take a stab at fresh­en­ing up some oth­er can­di­dates:













Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

“Lynchi­an,” “Kubrick­ian,” “Taran­ti­noesque” and 100+ Film Words Have Been Added to the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City Jan­u­ary 14 as host of The­ater of the Apes book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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