linguistics and lexicography Love English

What does it mean when a word is not in the dictionary?

Written by Stan Carey
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Sometimes you’ll see a word you’re not sure of, so you look it up in a dictionary – and lo and behold, it’s missing. You may conclude it’s not a ‘real word’, or maybe not even a word at all. But this is premature. Most words that people look up but fail to find in a dictionary are words – they just don’t happen to be in that dictionary. This is especially likely with rare, obsolete, technical, slang, and very new words.

No English dictionary includes every single word – not even the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is a historical reference work that records the English lexicon from its earliest days, but it doesn’t rush to add new and emerging usages, preferring to wait a few years to see if they become more established in the language. Nor does the OED – or any other dictionary – include every word from the many  sublanguages, dialects, and specialist lingos: this would be an impossible task.

Macmillan Dictionary, by contrast, includes historical words only if they’re still in common use. And because it’s primarily a learner’s dictionary, it forgoes obsolete usages altogether. Macmillan’s focus on contemporary language means that one of its strengths is how quickly it keeps up with the changes and new additions to English vocabulary.

Take snowflake. You may have seen this word used recently in contexts that had nothing to do with cold weather, but rather in political arguments. If you wanted to know what it meant, you would find the relevant sense in Macmillan’s Open Dictionary, which is based on readers’ submissions. You’ll find more about this development, and the related phrase snowflake generation, in my recent post about modern insults.

But because it’s so new, this sense of snowflake has yet to appear in most dictionaries. Some are adopting a wait-and-see strategy – perhaps the usage will fade within a year or two. Others are probably planning to add it in their next update. The advantage of the Open Dictionary is that it serves as a holding pen for words and usages that may or may not eventually become widespread or established, in which case they’re added to the dictionary proper. This means that potentially short-lived terms – fleek, bae, Brexitophobia and company – can be covered and, if appropriate, later dropped without ceremony.

So if you look up a word and it’s not in the dictionary you checked – and assuming it’s not misspelt or nonsense, like bookmrak or ghghvufdw – then try another dictionary. For example, if it seems like slang, check Green’s Dictionary of Slang. And if you’re still at a loss, think about why the word is not listed, and this may suggest the next line of inquiry.

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Stan Carey

1 Comment

  • Really enjoyed this post and reblogged it on ProofPerfectly.com. As a copyeditor at a marketing company, I run into non-words quite frequently, especially in material from the social media department.

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