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Open Dictionary Word of the Month: fake news

© PhotoDisc / Getty Images / Kent KnudsonSubmissions to the Open Dictionary in January were well up on December’s total, which was the lowest since February 2016.  32% of these were published, which is a considerable increase on December’s acceptance rate of 25%. Our contributors come from all around the world, so the drop can’t be attributable entirely to the Christmas break; and indeed last year December’s total was actually higher than that of previous months. Just an unexplained variation, then.

Phrasal verbs are one of the areas that cause learners of English a lot of difficulty. Although Macmillan Dictionary’s coverage of these tricky items is very thorough, there are some we have missed, and sometimes new ones come along. New phrasal verb entries submitted in this period include clench up, scroll down, wipe away, and my favourite, weasel out of. All these verbs except the last one are covered in the dictionary, of course, but the new entries add meanings that weren’t explicitly covered before.

Political events here and across the pond continue to be a rich source of new entries. So we have alternative fact, Brextremist, Calexit (the possibility of California detaching itself from the United States), EO (executive order), kompromat, and sanctuary city, among others. This is a stream that shows no signs of drying up. Business is another rich source of neologisms: this batch includes sharewashing, which joins other terms like straightwashing and leanwashing (and makes -washing a strong candidate for a new suffix entry); communications director; entity governance; forensic accounting; and sunset, used as a verb meaning to retire or phase out.

When we first compiled the Macmillan Dictionary 15 years ago, editorial policy was to cover only those derived words (sometimes called run-ons) that were reasonably frequent and likely to be used. This was because space in a printed dictionary is severely limited, and there was no point in wasting it on words that were vanishingly rare and thus unlikely to be looked up. One of the benefits of being online is that space constraints disappear and there is no limit to the number of entries we can add, although we still don’t add words that are never used. Our users sometimes spot gaps in our coverage of derived words: the current crop includes avidity, concealment, disinfection, mundanity and comeliness, all of which richly deserve a place in the dictionary.

There could only be one Open Dictionary word of the month for December and January and it is fake news. This term came to prominence during the US presidential election, when it became apparent that completely fabricated news stories, particularly on social media, were being accepted as true by many who read them. The  entry was submitted in early January by regular contributor Boris Marchenko, who defined it as “a sensational piece of news which does not map to reality“. In the few weeks since it was added to the Open Dictionary, there has been an explosion in the frequency with which the term is used. And in a striking illustration of the pace at which language is changing and acquiring new meanings, fake news has now been turned back on itself and is being used by the White House and others to dismiss any news story in the mainstream media regarded as unfavourable or biased. I suspect this is one neologism that is going to stick around for a long time.

Thanks for all your submissions and do keep them coming. If there’s a word or expression that you think deserves inclusion in the Open Dictionary you can submit it here. Don’t forget to check first to make sure your word isn’t in our dictionary already.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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