Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malev­o­lent lit­er­ary device for cramp­ing the growth of a lan­guage and mak­ing it hard and inelas­tic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dic­tio­nary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could nev­er acquire sticks and stones’ capac­i­ty to wound.

Talk about a max­im no longer worth the paper it was print­ed on!

Lan­guage is organ­ic. Def­i­n­i­tions, usage, and our response to par­tic­u­lar words evolve over time.

Lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er Ilan Sta­vans’ TED-Ed les­son, Who Decides What’s in the Dic­tio­nary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when school­mas­ter Robert Caw­drey assem­bled the first Eng­lish lan­guage dic­tio­nary “for the ben­e­fit of Ladies, Gen­tle­women, and oth­er unskilled folk.”

Oth­er Eng­lish dic­tio­nar­ies soon fol­lowed, expand­ing on the 2,543 words Caw­drey had seen fit to include. His fel­low authors shared Caw­drey’s pre­scrip­tive goal of edu­cat­ing the rab­ble, to keep them from butcher­ing the high-mind­ed tongue the self-appoint­ed guardian con­sid­ered it his duty to pro­tect.

Word­smith Samuel John­son, the pri­ma­ry author of 1775’s mas­sive A Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage, described his mis­sion as one in which “the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of our lan­guage may be fixed, and its attain­ment facil­i­tat­ed; by which its puri­ty may be pre­served, its use ascer­tained, and its dura­tion length­ened.”

Lest we think John­son over­ly impressed with the impor­tance of his lofty mis­sion, he sub­mit­ted the fol­low­ing gen­tly self-mock­ing def­i­n­i­tion of Lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er:

A writer of dic­tio­nar­ies; a harm­less drudge that busies him­self in trac­ing the orig­i­nal, and detail­ing the sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of words.

150 years lat­er, Ambrose Bierce offered an oppos­ing view in his delight­ful­ly wicked dic­tio­nary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pesti­lent fel­low who, under the pre­tense of record­ing some par­tic­u­lar stage in the devel­op­ment of a lan­guage, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiff­en its flex­i­bil­i­ty and mech­a­nize its meth­ods.

Sta­vans points to broth­ers George and Charles Merriam’s acqui­si­tion of the rights to Noah Webster’s An Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage (1828) as a moment when our con­cept of what a dic­tio­nary should be began to shift.

Web­ster, work­ing by him­self, set out to col­lect and doc­u­ment Eng­lish as it was used on these shores.

The Mer­ri­ams engaged a group of lan­guage experts to curate sub­se­quent edi­tions, strik­ing a blow for the idiom by includ­ing slang and region­al vari­ants.

A good start, though they exclud­ed any­thing they found unfit for the gen­er­al con­sump­tion at the time, includ­ing expres­sions born in the Black com­mu­ni­ty.

Their edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing was of a piece with pre­vail­ing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like lan­guage, evolve.

These days, lex­i­cog­ra­phers mon­i­tor the Inter­net for new words to be con­sid­ered for upcom­ing edi­tions, includ­ing pro­fan­i­ty and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be wide­spread, sus­tained and mean­ing­ful, in it goes… even though some might find it objec­tion­able, or even, yes, hurt­ful.

Sta­vans wraps his les­son up by draw­ing our atten­tion to Merriam-Webster’s tra­di­tion of anoint­ing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of the words peo­ple look up in extreme­ly high num­bers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a tes­ta­ment to how deeply non-bina­ry gen­der expres­sion has per­me­at­ed the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and nation­al con­ver­sa­tion.

The run­ner up?


Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How a Word Enters the Dic­tio­nary: A Quick Primer

A Dic­tio­nary of Words Invent­ed to Name Emo­tions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemö­dalen, Son­der, Chrysal­ism & Much More

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

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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