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How do words get into the dictionary? Part 2: changing times

In the previous post on this topic, we looked at the criteria traditionally applied by dictionary-makers when considering new words for inclusion. The question is as old as lexicography itself. When he wrote his Plan of an English Dictionary in 1747, Dr Johnson noted that it is ‘not easy to determine by what rule of distinction the words of this dictionary were to be chosen’. And having aired his ideas on the subject, he acknowledged that it isn’t always possible to make clear rules and then adhere to them strictly.

The Oxford dictionary website also has a go at explaining its inclusion principles – this time by means of an elaborate flowchart which takes you through the various decision points. Having cleared numerous hurdles, the successful word is at last included in the dictionary ‘in due course’. I’m not sure I agree with every stage of this. For example, if the question ‘Is its use limited strictly to one group of users?’ is answered with a ‘Yes’, the word is consigned to a sort of purgatory where its behaviour is monitored for possible future inclusion. But dictionaries routinely include vocabulary typical of specific user-groups – the important thing is to apply an appropriate label to indicate that it is not part of the general language. On the whole, though, the Oxford chart gives a good outline of the key criteria: does the evidence come from a range of sources (what we referred to previously as ‘dispersion’), and does it have ‘a decent history of use’(the longevity argument)?

The problem is that the approach applied by both Oxford and Merriam-Webster is rooted in the past. It reflects the realities of print-based dictionary publishing – and those days are gone.

What has changed? First, what we’d call the ‘publishing cycle’. When dictionaries existed mostly as printed books, publishers would produce a new edition every four or five years. They collected new vocabulary as it appeared, but they could take the long view on whether something was worth including. We do things differently now. Consider for example the linguistic fallout of the global financial crisis that began in 2008 – just a year after Macmillan published the second edition of its dictionary. With the dictionary now mainly consulted online, we were able to add important new usages, such as the word credit crunch or the new sense of toxic (when applied to debts) – without having to wait several years. The second big change, which has been gathering pace since the turn of the century, is that the amount of evidence available to us has grown exponentially, thanks to the Web and social media. Thirdly, we’re no longer limited by space constraints. Even the largest printed dictionaries don’t have the infinite amounts of space that online media provide, so they have to be selective. That’s no bad thing: the removal of these limits shouldn’t be a licence to include just anything. But it does allow us to re-think – and broaden – our inclusion policies.

Above all, older notions about ‘what gets into the dictionary’ reflect the idea of the lexicographer as a gatekeeper, the belief that it is up to us to decide (on behalf of everyone else) which facts about language deserve the special status of  being admitted to a dictionary. This notion of the dictionary having special ‘authority’ (which it confers on the words it includes) is well-established, and still has wide appeal. But it may be incompatible with the priorities and expectations of users of the Web – especially digital natives. If a word is in common use, people expect to find it in their online dictionary, and they won’t be impressed by the argument that it first requires ‘a decent history of use’. For many users, in other words, speed and convenience, getting a useful answer now, may be more important than authority.

As in so many other areas, one of the impacts of the Web has been a challenge to the old top-down model of one ‘expert’ provider and many passive recipients. It isn’t simply a case of users expecting dictionaries to respond more rapidly to language change – many of them also want to be involved in the compilation process. (Wikipedia is the obvious analogy.) In the final part of this series, we’ll discuss the implications of ‘crowd-sourced’ dictionary content (already a central feature of Wordnik, for example, and of our own Open Dictionary), and we’ll also look at emerging language technologies which might just change everything.

Read parts 1 and 3 of this series:

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Michael Rundell


  • You’ve laid it out very clearly, Michael, and I hope dictionary publishers are reading: I wonder how many of them are noticing that the upcoming generation may have little basis to regard them as authoritative. Anecdotally, 2012 is looking to be the first year in which I will earn more income from lexicographic work for dot coms than I will from traditional publishers. The writing is not on the page; it’s on the Internet!

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