A Thing About Words

Posts From the Editors

March 28, 2013

Anyhoo, It’s in the Dictionary Now

defaultOne of the assumptions people make about lexicographers is that they know whether a particular word is entered into the dictionaries they write. This is a preposterous assumption: most of the lexicographers I know haven’t memorized their dictionaries. That means that lexicographers, like everyone else, are occasionally surprised by entries in the dictionary—even the dictionary they’ve been working on. That was my experience when I was looking through some of the new entries we’ve added to the New Unabridged and stumbled across anyhoo, an informal and humorous synonym of the sentence adverb anyhow.

 

I blinked, then cooed: I grew up using anyhoo, and finding it in the New Unabridged was like seeing a long-lost childhood friend on the subway. As I read through the entry, my giddiness waxed back into surprise: anyhoo has been in written use since 1850. Why wasn’t it entered into our unabridged dictionaries until now?

 

Probably because the written record of anyhoo is spotty, at best, until the end of the 1980s. Anyhoo is colloquial English: that is, it is primarily spoken. Its first use was in a representation of Irish speech (“The divil a bit do I care for the Quane; it’s a small bit o’ praise that I’d be afther givin’ her, anyhoo.” [William Balch, Ireland, as I saw It, 1850]) and it appeared sporadically in print for the next 100 years, usually in reported or fictional dialogue. It wasn’t that anyhoo was less “real” or “legitimate” than a word like nonetheless; it was simply that we didn’t have enough written evidence back in the 1950s to enter it into the Third.

 

But the 1990s and the aughts saw a big spike in the use of anyhoo (and its less-common variant anywho), especially in the U.S. A quick trip through our citation files shows that its breezy informality became a boon and not a burden, and writers had a bit of an infatuation with anyhoo:

 

HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET (NBC, TV-14) Another citywide flu scare? Don’t these guys watch Law & Order? Anywho, there’s that, plus Munch’s mysterious visit to the doctor. (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, 6 Nov. 1998)

 

Dear Mr. President: Mr. President! Still can’t get used to that one, sorry! Gotta call you George, like in the old days. Can’t forget our friends, can we? Anyhoo. Sitting here with my better half—you remember Ginger, right? [satire] (Rob Long, National Review, 24 Oct. 2005)

 

Anyhoo. After having done my homework on the various Protestant denominations, and after learning exactly where each stood on the hermeneutical issues most important to me, I decided to apply to a Mennonite seminary. (Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, 2009)

It even made an appearance in Disney’s 1994 animated feature The Lion King, and the 1993 classic Groundhog Day. Sure as heck-fire.

 

Our evidence shows that anyhoo is probably a humorous appropriation of the Scots and Ulster word onie-hoo, which means “anyhow,” and it came about almost concurrently with the sense of anyhow that’s used to signal a change in subject.

 

But given that it’s informal, does it deserve entry into the New Unabridged? Of course. Though we label it “informal + humorous,” anyhoo has solid, sustained usage in publications like the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and even the New York Times, and that makes it an excellent candidate for entry.

 

Anyhoo, even if it’s not your cup of tea, I’m glad to have stumbled across it.

Kory Stamper, associate editor, has worked on dozens of Merriam-Webster products. She writes, lectures on English, and is proud to have defined both "bodice ripper" and "apocalypse" for the Unabridged Dictionary. Follow @KoryStamper on Twitter.

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4 Responses to “Anyhoo, It’s in the Dictionary Now”

  1. ===Dan says:

    Does “most of the lexicographers I know haven’t memorized their dictionaries” suggest that you know some that have?

  2. [...] But sometimes the lexicographers themselves are surprised by what they find in the updates, too. Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper writes today on the dictionary’s blog, “That was my experience when I was looking [...]

  3. Kory Stamper says:

    Actually, I do: our Director of Defining has said that he pretty much knows if a word is entered into our Collegiate Dictionary or not. But then again, he’s the Director of Defining.

  4. Bob says:

    Wow… It was nice to know this- thank you for writing this.

    Oh, and I think that very few, if any, lexicographers memorize their dictionaries. First, they would need to learn thousands of words. Very few people have enough motivation to do this. Then, they would have to re-study the dictionary every few years, or every time a new edition of their dictionary is published. What’s the point?

    I’m sure there are people that find use in studying the dictionary, like spelling bee competitors. Still, everyone gets surprised sometimes. Even the world’s most educated people.