The Grammarphobia Blog

An aha moment in lexicography

Q: Just when I figured we had enough words to worry about, Merriam-Webster’s throws a bunch more at us. It’s enough to make me throw one right back—“f-bomb.” What do you guys think about this article from the Atlantic?

A: After checking out the latest additions to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary over a “craft beer” at our local “gastropub,” we had an “aha moment.” Most of these terms aren’t “game changers” and they aren’t going to give anybody a “brain cramp.”

See what we mean? We’ll bet that nobody who’s reading this has to look them up. After all, what part of “f-bomb” (the term that turned you into a bomb thrower) doesn’t the average guy understand?

The Merriam-Webster company usually adds about 100 new words a year to its Collegiate Dictionary, though most of them are technical or scientific.

The 2012 update was announced on Aug. 14 with a selection of the sexiest new additions—that is, if you get a buzz from the likes of “sexting,” “mash-up,” “energy drink,” and the other newbies we quoted above.

Other terms that need no introduction are “cloud computing,” “bucket  list,” “life coach,” “earworm,” “e-reader,” “tipping point,” and “shovel-ready” (a phrase whose time may have come and gone).

But not all of the new words and phrases are household terms.

Take “copernicium,” described as “a short-lived artificially produced radioactive element that has 112 protons.” (And don’t pretend you knew it already.)

To be honest, another newbie, “obesogenic,” was news to us, but we had no trouble figuring out what it means—“promoting excessive weight gain.”

Not worried about your waistline? Maybe the economy is keeping you awake nights.

M-W Collegiate can help you put your worries into words: a “toxic” asset that’s gone down the drain, a house that’s worth less than its “underwater” mortgage, a “systemic risk” posed by a bank that’s too big to fail.

OK, we can hear you grumbling. All these changes pose a “systemic risk” to the English language! Why can’t the editors at Merriam-Webster’s leave well enough alone?

There’s a very good reason. Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, don’t add new words because they like or approve of them. New words get into dictionaries because people are using them—a lot—and they’re expected to keep using them.

The Oxford University Press, for example, issues quarterly updates to the Oxford Dictionaries Online.

The latest Oxford additions, announced yesterday, include many that are new to us, such as  “lifecasting” (continuous video of one’s daily activities), “tweeps” (followers on Twitter), and “dog food” used as a verb (to test a new product before it’s marketed).

Where do new words come from? As Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at the Merriam-Webster company, puts it, “They’re in the ether.”

Life changes, and English changes along with it. That’s why a term like “man cave” (a space a guy can have for himself) has shown up on the M-W Collegiate list of new entries.

Technology changes too, and that also requires new words, like the aforementioned “cloud computing,” “sexting,” and “e-reader.”

A new word doesn’t make it into the dictionary overnight, though. It has to be around for a while. No wonder so many of these “new” M-W terms don’t seem all that new.

Many people think that dictionaries shape the language. But just the opposite is true. The people who use the language determine what gets into dictionaries.

If a word is out there, if people are using it, then you can be sure that dictionary editors are watching and weighing it. Lexicographers always have their feelers out.

But don’t assume a word is standard English just because it’s in a dictionary. You have to read the fine print.

Dictionaries include standard usages, but also ones that are labeled colloquial, slang, dialect, nonstandard, regional, disparaging, offensive, obscene, and vulgar. (Covers just about all the bases, doesn’t it?)

And don’t assume every word in a dictionary is there to stay. Most dictionaries discard obsolete, unused words as they add fresh, new ones.

And as a word’s meaning or its spelling or its pronunciation changes in common usage, so does its entry.

Do you find this disturbing? Relax. If dictionaries didn’t keep up, they wouldn’t be of much use. And once you accept that, you’ll have an “aha moment.”

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