Today, Merriam-Webster revealed the new words that will be added to the 2014 edition of their Collegiate Dictionary. This event often grants an enjoyable taste of what is going on in the world, culturally-speaking. The addition of a word into the dictionary is an honor, and adds credence to the value that a word carries. Until the word becomes obsolete, its definition, origin and pronunciation will be available to all.
In their press release Peter Sokolowski, the Editor-at-Large for Merriam-Webster, said that many of the new additions reflect the huge impact the internet has had on the world. 150 new words made the cut, but how does the most trusted dictionary publisher in America go about choosing those words?
The most important component to becoming an official word in a Merriam-Webster dictionary is usage. Word usage is tracked by monitoring which words people tend to use most, as well as how they use the words. Many editors at Merriam-Webster commit a couple of hours a day to reading cross sections of newly published materials. Books, publications on the internet, magazines and newspapers are all included. They call this “reading and marking.” The editors are primarily seeking out new words, new word usages, spelling variations and forms of words that have been inflected. Stand out words are marked plus the context to help provide further insight.
Then the passages are uploaded into their computer system for storage. There is also a 3×5 index card created which includes particular information. Written on each card is the word, a context example of the word and information about the source of the word. This is called a citation. Begun in the 1880’s, Merriam-Webster’s file of citations contains 15.7 million words. A text database that has a searchable feature is also available to the editors. Called a corpus by linguists, it has over 70 million words.
In order for a word to go from citation status to being deemed dictionary worthy, there is a process by which editors review the citations in groups. Editors with defining duties, definers, begin with small sections of the alphabet and comb those sections looking for areas that need re-editing. Through this process, definers are able to choose the optimal course of action by reading citations and utilizing the information on them to either adjust entries or even add new ones. At Merriam-Webster, a new word must have enough citations to prove that it has widespread use before it will be added.
Some of the words announced today have truly become part of the English lexicon. Selfie, baby bump and fracking have all earned their rightful places. Some are completely new words, like freegan and paywall. Others are new uses, like catfish and brilliant, for familiar words. Fangirl, pepita and pho are examples of new entries that have been in common, or at least regionally common, use for many decades.
Dubstep, hashtag and gamification may not be rolling off of everyone’s tongues, but Merriam-Webster has found that these terms are part of enough daily lives to be added as new words. Dictionaries are not just library reference material or a teaching source in the classroom. Dictionaries are a culturally significant reflection of what people are doing and saying.
By Stacy Lamy