How do you get a word in the dictionary? An editor explains.
You have a word. It’s a great word. Your friends use it all the time on Twitter. You heard it on a podcast last month. You’ve been using the word forever. But it’s still not in the dictionary.
And you’re the type of person who really wants to change that.
It’s best to start with the idea that you aren’t getting a word in the dictionary on your own. Sure, you can call, tweet at or email the folks at Merriam-Webster. Someone may even read your plea. But even in a best-case scenario, your example is only going into a filing system with the other 15 million-plus citations of potential dictionary additions Merriam-Webster has on file. At some point during a dictionary update cycle, an editor pulls out those alphabetized citations for a sliver of the dictionary (let’s say the words between “boa” and “box”) as part of their evaluation.
Reading, reading and more reading
Lexicographers at dictionaries spend several hours a week digging through publications for potential new words. They’re not only looking for unfamiliar terms, but also words being used in new ways. When they find evidence, they write a citation and put it on file for the next time they’re updating a dictionary.
So what are they reading? While slang experts like Jonathon Green and Tom Dalzell talked about going over anything and everything they can find for citations in their slang dictionaries, mainstream dictionary editors like the folks at Merriam-Webster stick to mainstream print sources. The reasoning is simple: If a word like emoji is used in verbal conversation, text messages and social media, it’s eventually going to spread to People Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
“We read everything,” Stamper said. “We’re looking for words that catch our eye. … And once they’re in the database we start tracking them and start looking for more uses of them.”
Does the word really need to be in the dictionary?
If you eat Indian food, you’ve likely heard of korma. It’s on a lot of Indian restaurant menus. But it still had a hard time getting into Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.
“Sometimes words enter the language and it takes them forever to become common,” Stamper said. “[Korma] was first used in print in the 1830s but we didn’t enter it into our dictionaries until just a few years ago because it just didn’t have much widespread use.”
Korma faced another obstacle, too. While it appeared in several places, it was often accompanied by its definition instead of being able to stand on its own in context. Which brings us to …
The three criteria each word must meet
According to Stamper, each word that makes it into the dictionary must clear these three hurdles:
- Widespread use: This is mostly in print, it’s hard for lexicographers to track spoken English. Dictionary editors are usually looking for edited prose in a lot of different places.
- Sustained use: Words spike all the time, but they drop off, too. To make a dictionary, they need to be around — and in regular use — for a long time.
- Meaningful use: Words that are easily understood by a significant slice of the English-speaking population.
Defining and re-defining
Once an editor is sold on a word needing to be in the dictionary, they start writing the definition. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.
For instance, Stamper grew up around skateboarders and was surprised to find the word ollie wasn’t in a dictionary she was revising. She did the necessary groundwork, produced several citations and even drew pictures to make sure she was describing the move correctly. But when it came time to get the definition approved, the editor who was the final reader wanted to see more.
“What ended up happening was I found contact information for the guy who created the ollie,” Stamper said, alluding to Alan “Ollie” Gelfand. “He and his wife had been petitioning other dictionaries to enter it.
“He and his wife sent an email [verifying my definition] … That was a little bit more involved than most of my slang defining tends to be. But that was a great example of [how] sometimes you’ve got to go outside of your own knowledge base as a lexicographer to get a word defined well.”
The eventual payoff
If a word can get through all of these steps and gets the final sign off, it’s dictionary bound. And probably for a long time, too. Stamper said once a word gets in, it takes a lot to get it removed.
Of course, getting into the dictionary isn’t a fast process, either. Dictionaries are huge, so they’re only updated periodically. About 1,700 new words were officially added to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary in late May.