Dictionary book

How are words added to the dictionary?

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Last month, Merriam-Webster announced that 530 New words have been added to the dictionary. Among them are new meanings of existing words, such as “they” as a non-binary pronoun, “free solo” (as a climber, this is especially exciting for me), “Bechdel Test” and “joke daddy. “.

How, exactly, are these new words added? What criteria must a word meet to find its place in the Book of English Words?

When the Webster Dictionary was first published in 1828 to standardize American English, it contained 70,000 words. The previous version of the dictionary, compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1755, contained 40,000 words.

Today, the standard English language dictionary, like the Oxford English Dictionary, contains over half a million words.

It’s… quite a jump.

Do we really have a 85% increase in the number of words of the English language? Yes and no. There was never an exact amount. The language is fluid and constantly changing, and the bringing together of words has become more robust, especially as the process has gone digital. The purpose of a dictionary, after all, is to give the audience a practical guide to finding the meaning of words they come across and learning how to use them in context. (Readers do this with books too, we just learn the wrong pronunciations for the new words we never heard aloud.)

I had a lot of questions about this process, so I contacted Merriam webster to see if they could help me figure out how far a word has to travel before the dictionary gives it a real home. Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer (name; a person who compiles dictionaries) at Merriam-Webster, discussed with me the journey of a word, the research process to identify new words, and how it is perfectly normal for words like “wonderful” and “literally” Take on a new meaning, no really.

How? ‘Or’ What Is is a word added to the dictionary?

“He must have a real penetration into the culture,” says Sokolowski. If the word is likely to be encountered by an average reader (medium meaning the general public) through a number of easily accessible public sources, in non-specialized or non-specialized spaces, used frequently, and no longer needs explanation in parentheses or in italics, then it may be ready for an appropriate definition in the Book of Definitions.

Consider the term “pain point,” added last month. Its first use was recorded in 1986, but it has grown in popularity in the working world over the past 5-10 years, especially in finance, advertising, retail, etc. It’s also a specific compound word that requires its own definition, as searching for “pain” and “point” separately won’t tell you what the pain point means in that particular context, which is a lingering problem that makes clients worse. companies are trying to solve It is one of those buzzwords that has crept into global culture and therefore deserves a definition.

How long does the process take?

“Each word has its own tempo,” Sokolowski told me. “Its own pace and its own time. Lexicographers and dictionary editors like Merriam-Webster maintain their own internal database of words which they have monitored for years, paying particular attention to new uses of words, new words in general, and frequency to which they are starting to appear in bigger, more widely accessible publications.

Timeline is usually a generation’s worth for a word to take root in a culture: around 20-25 years. “Dad joke” has been around since the 1980s before its official indoctrination this year, but the Bechdel Test, named after designer Alison Bechdel, was invented in 2007 before its dictionary debut this year.

There are exceptions to this, however, especially when it comes to how quickly technology is changing. The fastest turnaround time for a single word? Four years. Word?


“Technology requires vocabulary,” Sokolowski explained. “There was no equivalent for the word blog [in 1999]. “The dictionary (and our culture) was to meet this immediate need to name the thing helping to shape the Internet, so the blog was added in 2004.

dictionary pages

Where do you look at the words?

“We call it a corpus,” said Sokolowski (name, 3.b: a collection or a set of knowledge or evidence). “A searchable body of text.” (What he said.) “We are looking for different types of corpora for each instance of a word; when it was first used, how often[ly] it is used. Then we trace a word going back in time. A good lexicographer will continue to back down until you find [the word] more.”

In addition to maintaining their own internal database, Merriam-Webster Lexicographers also use sources such as Nexis to search online publications all over the world for word usage, as well as historical sources such as the National Archives to trace words to previous uses.

This approach is also extremely useful when dealing with words whose meanings have changed over time, such as literally Where fabulousness. Fabulous is indicative of fabulous, but the terms meaning “fabulous” have changed since the word was created in 1603. We know that fabulous and its iterations mean marvelous, wonderful, fantastic, but fabulous was first used to mean “ like a fable, ”and the thing that is“ fabulous ”or has“ fabulousness ”is something that resembles or suggests a fable. Personally I think it’s cooler, but when you hear “fabulous” you don’t think of amazing mythical tales, do you?

Probably because it’s rarely used that way today, and never gained popularity in that sense (stop trying to do seek to arrive, Gretchen; It’s not going to happen). Once its meaning changed, gained traction in everyday speech, and became so big that we forgot what the word originally meant, it warranted a new definition (that’s what ‘we call semantic bleaching). Fabulous.

Has the word volume increased?

Yes, and mainly because the Internet makes searching easier than ever before. “The pace of communication makes to feel as words are ‘made up’ faster, “Sokolowski explains,” because research can be done faster. “

Before lexicographers had the Internet to search for data on word usage, around 100 words were added once a year to the new printed version of the dictionary. Now companies like Merriam-Webster have released three new words so far this year, totaling well over a thousand new words or new meanings of existing words.

dictionary entry on phone

Are the words removed from the dictionary?

Only in printed version. The internet offers endless space for words, so there’s no need to delete a word from the cool kids dictionary club. To save space, words have always been removed from the printed dictionary version. Some compound words are not captured because their meaning is obvious (such as apple juice), while others have been removed from the print edition, especially if they are not commonly used (such as crossbowman).

And There you go. Lexicographers across the dictionary spectrum pay close attention to how words are loved by the general public, and they watch and watch for years before they are sure the word has power in this culture. And you know who drives the ebb and flow of the words entering the dictionary?

You. Every human using a given language contributes to every word put in the dictionary.

Keep up the good work.