Here’s How Words Get Added to the Dictionary

Just look it up—or look here to check out the dish on dictionaries that logophiles will love! (Logophile means word lover!)

What’s the deal with new words? Where do they come from and how do they go from obscure to official? First, new words have to circulate in culture to make it into the dictionary. They have to be used and understood. Words have a much better chance of getting added to the dictionary if you see them in print or hear them in conversation. It’s actually a full-time job to scour popular communication to figure out what new words are surfacing in our vernacular. According to Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary first published in 1806, “dictionary editors read actively, looking for changes in the language.” Inspired to try reading the whole dictionary? Here’s how long it would take you.

What’s a lexicographer and what do they do?

Are you a logophile, aka someone with a passion for words? If so, being a professional lexicographer may be the ideal job for you. Lexicographers get to decide which words make it into the dictionary, and they do so by reading widely across industries and disciplines. However, they also make decisions about which slang terms make it in. Lexicographer Kory Stamper calls the dictionary, “a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people.” Check out the requirements you need to become lexicographe, including something called “sprachgefühl.”

How many words are added to the dictionary each year?

Dictionaries can sometimes get over 1,000 new words per year. So far, in 2019 the Merriam-Webster added over 600 in April and another 500+ in September. After lexicographers decide which words warrant inclusion, they write a new definition. Some existing words also gain additional meanings, and there are usually thousands of revisions. The dictionary is a constantly evolving work-in-progress, just like the language it describes and defines. For instance, the word “peak” recently went from being just a sharp, pointed end to also being something at the height of popularity. Occasionally fake words (like dord!) actually end up in the dictionary by mistake.

What are some new dictionary additions for 2019?

Here’s some inspo from the latest dictionary update sesh—yes, both inspo and sesh were added this year. (Inspo is short for inspiration, and sesh shortens the word session.) Merriam-Webster also added new words related to race and identity. Two of these new terms are “they” and “inclusive.” Though both words have long had cultural meanings that address the complexities and intersections of identity, now they’re officially in the dictionary. “They” was previously a plural and sometimes singular pronoun; now it refers to a person with a nonbinary gender identity that can be used in place of she or he. And inclusive now carries the additional meaning, “allowing and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability.)” Here are 15 fascinating facts about dictionaries that will make you want to read one right now.

What if you have a slang word that’s perfect for the dictionary?

If you have a word that you think should be in the dictionary, you’re welcome to get in touch with the lexicographers and suggest it. However, the word needs to be fairly popular and in use by way more people than just you and your friends. It has to have “widespread, frequent, meaningful usage.” For instance, OMG was added to the dictionary in 2009 after lexicographers had observed it in general use for about 15 years. Discover 30 slang terms from the 1920s—like wurp—that need to make a comeback.

What’s a neologism and how can you create one?

Neologism is a new word—one invented or coined that’s not been in use before. The etymological origins of the term are Greek for “new” and “word.” New words spring from new technologies and disciplines, but they’re very often invented by logophiles, by authors and writers who love language and play with it to create new meanings. One of the foremost “neologists” (that’s not in the dictionary yet!) was William Shakespeare who’s credited with creating over 1,700 new words often by adapting usage and using new compounds. He’s responsible for words like eyeball, hobnob, swagger, and zany. Such words are also called “authorisms,” words created by a writer, like “hard-boiled,” invented by Mark Twain. If you’re ready for full-blown logophilia (also not a real word yet!) here are 10 absolutely gorgeous words that will roll off your tongue.

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