A Thing About Words

Posts From the Editors

May 23, 2014

Hello, New Words

mwu_first_collegiate_1898_outputPart of the lexicographer’s job is to find new words, and it may be the part that gets the most public attention, particularly when some of those words are announced as new dictionary entries. But for a dictionary editor it’s a continual process, a habit of noticing. In fact, it can become difficult to read without taking note of novel use of language. The eternal vigilance of the lexicographer is probably an example of what the French call la déformation professionelle—a work habit that can’t be easily turned off.

 

Reactions to a dictionary’s announcement of new words typically include both surprise (that a given word hadn’t already been entered) and dismay (that another has). The words that get the most attention are those that stand out as the new, the hip, the slangy, the trendy—they become a simplistic synecdoche for the whole:

 


 

But these words aren’t the whole story. Many people intuitively understand that the language grows and changes, and that the dictionary reflects those changes and confers a kind of official status on the ones it enters. Our criteria for inclusion are the frequency and breadth of usage, not the novelty and fun of coinage. Reading and noticing new words and senses is like taking an ongoing census of the language, and the process is as neutral as we can make it. Rather than recommending that you adopt these words into your daily vocabulary, we’re simply assessing that you may well encounter these words in your daily life. A reporter suggested this week that adding new words like selfie might be a pitch for the young and the hip—but why not assume instead that such words are entered for the benefit of those people who have never used them? Our target demographic includes all speakers of English.

 

The business of keeping the dictionary up to date therefore entails watching the words currently used regardless of when they were coined or who uses them. So, along with selfie, tweep, and dubstep (and friend with benefits, and meh), our new additions include exoplanet, heteronormative, sous vide, and Arab Spring. Some of these might strike you as a bit stale and others as ridiculous neologisms, and that’s probably just as it should be; if you’re exposed to a word regularly, it’s easy to assume that your experience is shared by everyone else. But it’s simply not true: we all carry our own vocabulary around with us, but the dictionary carries everyone else’s vocabulary, too.

 

We also add new meanings to existing entries. A good example is whisperer:

 

2 : a person who excels at calming or training hard-to-manage animals using noncoercive methods based especially on an understanding of the animals’ natural instincts

 

Another is mindfulness; a look at the Google Books database for use of the word mindfulness shows that its sharp increase in frequency began 25 years ago:

Mindfulnfess-ngram

 

Along with new words and meanings, each of our copyright updates incorporates many other changes and corrections. This time, for example, over 1,000 dates of first use were changed, and some of the antedatings were impressive. For arachnophobia, our research pushed the date back from 1925 to 1863; we now know that baby back ribs goes back not merely to 1981 but to 1954; and bachelorette turns out to date from the suffragette period (1896) rather than the swing era (1935).

 

Some room had to be cleared in order to fit in new material. Though we normally avoid removing words between our fully revised new editions, space limitations made some cuts necessary this time. We never delete old favorites like chair and beverage (no matter what David Letterman says), but instead look for entries that are self-explanatory and virtually never looked up, such as plantsman and crossbowman. (They will live on in the Unabridged, of course.)

 

The flurry of attention that accompanies each new-words announcement provides an occasion to acknowledge cumulative language change. An announcement like this is a perfect moment to reflect on the words we use and how we use them—and maybe also to learn a new word or two. But a dictionary is less a teacher of vocabulary than a museum of language; you have to go inside and see for yourself what’s there.

 

New words derived from new technology, trendy though they may seem, can become important and even irreplaceable in our daily lives. One of the new words from the very first edition of the Collegiate in 1898 was coined for a gadget that few people thought they wanted or knew they would ever need. That gadget was the telephone, and the word was hello.

Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large, has written definitions for Merriam-Webster's French-English and Advanced Learner's dictionaries. A frequent lecturer on language, he also serves as pronouncer for spelling bees around the world. Follow @PeterSokolowski on Twitter.

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5 Responses to “Hello, New Words”

  1. This is an interesting discussion of how new words and senses are added. Keep up the good work!

  2. Alvis Yu says:

    “But a dictionary is less a teacher of vocabulary than a museum of language; you have to go inside and see for yourself what’s there.” Can’t agree with you more, sir! Dictionaries are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, though some folks might find this hard to accept.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Harry Bee says:

    Gee. And I thought a “person who uses Twitter” would have been a twit. Live and learn.

  4. RJ Balch says:

    Interesting. Thank you. Now that we’ve had a glimpse into how the lexicologic sausage is made, could someone please add volcano(ed) and volcano(ing) so we can have more eruptive verbs? You know it makes sense.

  5. Will Morris says:

    I think the example of the opposition to ‘hello’ is a great piece of information to use in defending the descriptivist perspective.