How do words get into the dictionary? Part 1: the past

Posted by on February 02, 2012

In Kate Atkinson’s recent novel, Started Early, Took My Dog (2010), there’s an exchange between two of the characters. When one of them mentions a large sum of money, we read that Kelly, the other character, ‘suddenly meerkatted to attention’. Does this mean we have a new verb on our hands, to meerkat? Should it be added to the dictionary? Probably not. Atkinson is doing what most language users do occasionally (and some do quite often): taking a word or phrase the reader already knows, and doing something inventive with it to create a new meaning. In this case, it’s simply a question of making a verb out of a noun – a process we’ve discussed frequently in the blog – so the reader has no difficulty understanding the sentence. But this is what we’d call an ‘exploitation’ (a one-off, imaginative coinage) rather than a ‘norm’ (something which has become ‘settled’ in the language through repeated use), and this is one of several factors we have to take account of when deciding what to put in the dictionary.

There’s a video describing the process by which new words are admitted to Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries. It’s quite a complex procedure, and the editor who explains it says that this question – ‘How does a word get into your dictionary?’ – is the one he gets asked most often. It’s an important question, too, so we’re devoting three posts to it. We’ll look first at the ‘inclusion criteria’ which dictionary editors have traditionally used; then we’ll consider how far these are still relevant in the world of online dictionaries; and in a final post, we’ll look at emerging technologies which could eventually make this whole question irrelevant.

Orin’s recent post on Tebowing highlights the general fascination with new words, and explains why some words never make it into dictionaries. And if the public is engaged with the issue of what goes in the dictionary, journalists and reviewers are even more interested. We’ve discussed before how most dictionary reviews focus almost exclusively on new words and meanings, and this reflects an assumption that ‘getting into the dictionary’ confers a special status on the successful word. As Kerry Maxwell points out:

For many, the perception is that any word which has gained enough currency to be officially recorded is a ‘proper’ word, here to stay for the use of future generations.

Kerry’s article on how words get into a Macmillan dictionary provides a useful summary of the key issues. There are three main criteria. First, is it a ‘real’ word anyway, or is it simply, like meerkatted, an individual writer’s playful use of language? (Of course, ‘exploitations’ like this can turn into norms – and so become dictionary entries – if other people pick up the usage and recycle it often enough.) Second, what does the evidence tell us about our word’s use? Any linguistic feature (be it a word, phrase, collocation, or meaning) which occurs frequently enough over a long enough period will start to look as if it is ‘part of the language’ – and therefore to deserve its place in a dictionary.

The problem of course is deciding what counts as ‘enough’. And frequency alone is not a sufficient condition because a word may be used with great frequency in a single text – but hardly at all outside it. An extreme example is a word like droog, which appears repeatedly in the novel A Clockwork Orange (it’s part of the secret language which the main characters use, and means ‘friend’), but has never entered the general language. So ‘dispersion’ – the extent to which a word occurs in a range of different sources – is almost as important as frequency. Third, there is the question of whether the word is appropriate for the particular dictionary we’re dealing with. There’s a big difference between a major historical dictionary (the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, contains over a million headwords, many of them long obsolete) and a dictionary aimed at schoolchildren. So the needs, expectations, and language skills of the dictionary’s intended users are all factors to be taken into account.

Kerry’s explanation of Macmillan’s inclusion criteria was written in 2006 – which now seems like a bygone era. At that time, ‘the dictionary’ was still (for most people) a printed book of limited dimensions, Facebook and Twitter barely existed, and language technologies in common use today were still in development. In the next post on this topic, we’ll consider how far traditional ideas about what gets into the dictionary remain relevant in 2012.


Comments (4)
  • Something that most lexicographers will have experienced at one time or another is a request to ‘put a word in the dictionary’. In the view of the requester (is that a word?) their candidate is a brilliant coinage that fills an obvious lexical gap. I always explain that words get into ‘the dictionary’ (which dictionary?) when lots of people use them over a considerable period of time, so what they need to do is get their word out there and see if it catches on…

    Posted by Liz Potter on 2nd February, 2012
  • Great introduction to a complicated topic, Michael, and one that, as you say, is being revolutionized by technology. I wrote on this as well, in 2007, for a bit more fodder on the subject:

    http://www.vocabulary.com/articles/ll/1154/

    where I partly address Liz’s point about word requesters.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 2nd February, 2012
  • The word “Droog” in the meaning of friend seems actually to be borrowed from Russian “Друг”, Always nice to see the influence of your own language, isn’t it?

    Posted by Timer Musin on 3rd February, 2012
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