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The dictionary that keeps on growing

Macmillan Dictionary & social media

The latest update of the Macmillan Dictionary went live last week, and it includes 146 new words. On top of that, 25 existing words have gained new meanings, and we’ve made over 130 other changes – updating or improving definitions, adding “new” alternative pronunciations, and so on. The dictionary keeps on growing.

We’ve talked before in the blog about the tricky question of deciding which words go into the dictionary.  (And bear in mind that even the mighty OED, with over half a million entries, doesn’t claim to include all the vocabulary of English.) The traditional approach was to identify a set of “inclusion criteria” – tests which a candidate for inclusion would have to pass. These would be determined by what we knew about the users of our dictionary and their reference needs. But the move from print to digital has changed the rules. When the dictionary existed only in the form of a printed book, space was limited so our inclusion criteria had to be very strict. With this constraint lifted, the criteria need to be revised. We’re now thinking more in terms of “exclusion criteria”, asking the question: are there good reasons why this word should not be included in the Macmillan Dictionary?

A good example of the difference this makes is our policy on chemical elements. The original (printed) edition included entries for only about half of the 118 elements. The argument for not including the full set was simple. Print dictionaries are in a “zero-sum game”, so if the dictionary had entries for little-known elements like lanthanum, meitnerium, and europium, something else would have to be left out – probably something that would be more useful to more of our readers. But with the limitations of the print medium removed, adding 58 “new” elements to complete the set is just common sense: what good reason could there be for excluding them?

Other additions this time include a couple of newly-popular “productive” forms. Our data shows that the suffix -mageddon is used with increasing frequency. We already have the word carmageddon (for describing an extreme form of traffic congestion), which was added to our Open Dictionary by a US reader in 2011 (and was the name of a computer game as far back as 1997). But several other combinations can be found occurring quite frequently, such as snowmageddon, debtmageddon, and birdmageddon. These are modelled of course on armageddon, and they invoke – by analogy – the idea of something bad occurring on a large scale and causing chaos or destruction. The word porn is similarly used to generate new combinations,  like car porn, food porn (sometimes gastro-porn) or property porn. It’s a way of describing magazines, TV shows and the like which feature expensive cars, elaborate recipes, or fabulous real estate, and the implication is that people’s fascination with these things and pleasure in looking at them is slightly unhealthy. The judgement we have to make as lexicographers is whether things like food porn or snowmageddon deserve full entries in the dictionary, or whether it’s better to treat porn and -mageddon as productive forms which can generate any number of new words or compounds. At this point we have gone for the second option, but carmageddon is frequent enough to get an entry of its own, and the same could eventually happen to some of the other combinations.

As always, the worlds of business and finance contribute several new entries, many of them reflecting ordinary people’s distrust of the shadowy dealings of some of those working in the field. Tax inversion, Dutch sandwich and double Irish are all clever devices that enable big corporations to avoid paying tax while staying within the law. The dark pool is yet another example of secretive or risky practices in the buying and selling of shares – to go with words already in the dictionary such as grey market and high-frequency trading. (Our thesaurus includes a useful collection of stock market vocabulary, here.) In the related area of macroeconomics, there is increasing evidence (both linguistically and in management behaviour) for a race to the bottom – a situation where intense competition leads to a progressive reduction of workers’ pay and living standards.

The different dialects or varieties of English provide several new additions, with thrawn, feart, and swither coming from Scottish English; timepass and stepney from Indian English; the word kawaii (meaning something like “cute”) borrowed from Japan; and several others. The next update will feature a more significant expansion in our coverage of vocabulary from World Englishes (that is, from varieties of English other than American and British). The plan is that each major update (or “new release”) of the dictionary will have two components: general neologisms (as now) and a specific “theme” where we focus on one particular vocabulary type.

Next time, it will be World Englishes, but in the current release, the big theme is grammar and linguistics. Leading grammarian Gill Francis (who has written numerous posts for the blog) has reviewed every word in the dictionary that has the label “linguistics”, and completely rewritten many of them – as well as adding dozens of new terms. The result is that the Macmillan Dictionary is now one of the best available resources for anyone working or studying in the fields of linguistics and language-teaching. Gill will be writing a separate post about what she has done in this area, so watch this space. And thanks again to all of you who have contributed new words to our Open Dictionary – a good proportion of which have been “promoted” to become full entries in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Michael Rundell

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