Merriam-Webster says they’ve added 530 words to their dictionary this month. Some words are food-based, like “cidery” and “tallboy,” while others include “dad joke” and “fatberg.” How does this process work?
According to the Merriam-Webster website, their new batch of words totals 533. They also either added additional definitions or amended existing definitions to 4,000 words already in the dictionary. For example, the word “haircut” has had a recent addition to it. “A new sense was added, meaning ‘reduction in the value of an asset,'” the website said. The process of adding new words to a dictionary and providing their definitions is seldom considered, but is, nonetheless, a daily part of our lives.
The People behind the Words
“Lexicographers, the people who make dictionaries, see their task as a descriptive one; in other words, they see themselves as examining the evidence about words and then trying to capture the meaning of a word in the dictionary,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “They’re tracking language; they’re recording change. They’re well aware that the language is always changing, and they’re trying to keep up with it.”
Dr. Curzan said that lexicographers often use specific databases to keep an eye on words that pop up in the popular lexicon, whether in scientific registers or slang, and then see if it gains traction.
“Lexicographers rely on printed work, and when they’re doing that, they talk about this as a very old-fashioned practice: they’re underlining words, they’re bracketing the passage in which the word is identified, and then they’re using that to try to determine the meaning of the word,” Dr. Curzan said. “They catalog all this material, and then if they decide that a word is established enough in usage, it goes into the dictionary.”
Dictionaries are often amended based on feedback from a “Usage Panel.” Dr. Curzan explained that a dictionary’s Usage Panel is made up of about 200 critics, writers, and scholars. Every year, they receive a questionnaire asking if they agree with the definition or usage of a list of words. If enough panelists agree, the word is pushed through. She, herself, is on the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary.
If a word is used widely enough to go into the dictionary, the next step is properly writing its definition. This is a far more precise and delicate operation than most of us would believe.
“You need to avoid circularity,” Dr. Curzan said. “You can’t define a word by itself or by things in its family of words unless the related words are defined independently. I mean you can’t define ‘beautiful’ as ‘full of beauty’ and then define ‘beauty’ as ‘the state of being beautiful;’ you’re just sending users back and forth between these two words without defining them.”
Additionally, Dr. Curzan said all the words in the definition itself should be in the dictionary. This way, if a reader isn’t familiar with one of the words in a definition, he or she can look that word up, also.
Ultimately, definitions of words rest on the usage of words. The process of defining word definitions for inclusion in a dictionary can seem a bit cyclical. It begins with the public usage of words then proceeds through examination by lexicographers, editors, and usage panels to then become the words in a dictionary looked up by the public. Despite this cycle, the act of capturing a language’s vocabulary is as admirable as it is a considerable effort.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.