How do words enter dictionaries?
A few months ago, I wrote a column on long words. I noted there that the longest word recognized by the good people at Merriam-Webster was considerably shorter than some of the long words recognized by their competitors. So why is this?
“Famous,” they say, “the ‘longest word in the dictionary’ is not really a word. . . because it is never used to mean what it seems to describe. It is only used as an example of a very long word. (So) It’s not in our dictionary.
Thinking about this fact has made me wonder exactly how the editors of various dictionaries decide which words are worth admitting in their scholarly volumes. So I started to dig.
It seems the fastest way – and the one used by British blogger Lyza Danger Gardner – is to get an editor out of the Oxford English Dictionary and get him drunk. It really worked; she got a word in the OED that way. The only problem was, it wasn’t the one she was trying to get into.
Talking to him about an insane word (“nugry”) that she wanted to see added in her prestigious work, she frequently used a phrase that piqued her interest, and so it is that “food coma” (a feeling of drowsiness after a large meal) came to be included in OED.
A more conventional way to submit a word you are passionate about in the Oxford English Dictionary would be to use the submission form on public.oed.com.
However, some dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster, do not have a submission form. So let’s say – just for the sake of chatting – you don’t hang out with a lexicographer who is also a lush. How do you go about integrating your new favorite word into these other dictionaries?
This is the predicament of siblings Johnathan and Hillary Krieger of Boston whose father, Neil, coined the word “orbiculate” (to accidentally squirt juice or pulp into a grapefruit’s eye using a spoon to take a section to eat) for the sole reason of trying to put it in the dictionary.
Personally, I would also like to see “toler” (a live duck once used as a decoy, like those raised by Maine writer John Gould when he was younger for his friend LL Bean) listed in the dictionary.
According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, to be included in their lexicon, a word must not only have meaning, it must also be a word that the average adult is likely to encounter. It must also be cited in a wide range of published publications, whether in newspapers, magazines or online (“usage is usage”), over a considerable period of time, which is known to happen. like a “lexical gap”. (And “a considerable period” can mean up to 25 years, which is the time it took for “joke daddy” to finally make the cut.)
The initials and slang are also part of the ledger in the same slow fashion (it took “OMG” 15 years to make the cut), as well as new uses of existing words, such as “mouse” and “cookies. “. (The folks at OED point out, “These words might not make the headlines, but they’re just as important as the words that were just made up.”)
So my advice to the Krieger family is to use “orbisculate” as often as possible and in as many places as possible – and I wouldn’t mind at all if this grapefruit juice orbit in a sinner’s eye. from time to time if it resulted in the inclusion of the duck in the dictionary.
Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and word lover whose works include “LL Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine”.