How Do Words Get Added to the Dictionary?

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New words, phrases, and definitions are added to the Oxford English Dictionary four times a year, and this month’s revision includes over 1,200 changes and updates, from a new “sense” of the word thing to the “well-established, but newly-prominent usage of woke,” as Head of U.S. Dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin writes on the OED’s blog.

Martin, one of the people who decides which new words and “senses” get added to the OED, agreed to answer a few questions for us about how that process works, and whether dictionary rivalries exist. (We’re looking at you, Merriam-Webster.)

How did you come to be Head of U.S. Dictionaries for OED?

There are dozens of editors who work as lexicographers on the OED, but only a few in the US office. I was lucky enough to become one of them 14 years ago, when I saw an advertisement on the Oxford University Press website and applied for the job — not a very romantic origin story! My background was in history, not linguistics, but that’s not unusual. OED editors come from many different academic backgrounds.

How do you decide which words and definitions to add throughout the year?

We have a large database of potential new words and senses, compiled from a lot of different sources: personal observation, suggestions from the public, our reading program, and through computational analysis. In order to be entered into the OED, a word or definition must satisfy certain evidentiary requirements. For example, there must be widespread evidence in a variety of sources, attested over a significant period of time. The OED is a historical dictionary which aims to cover the full thousand-year history of English, so it tends to wait a bit before adding neologisms, to ensure that they have staying power.

What’s your favorite new word or “sense” from this latest addition?

I am excited about the new sense that was added to the entry for thing. That’s a well-established word that you wouldn’t expect to be seeing a lot of innovation with, but we’ve just added a new sense to cover the way it is used in phrases like, “is that even a thing?” or “I can’t believe dog strollers are a thing.” The first citation is from The West Wing!

Are there dictionary rivalries to add the newest, latest words?

Lexicographers themselves are a remarkably supportive and collegial bunch. We share an uncommon profession and unusual interests (bordering on obsessions), so when we have the opportunity to interact, the overwhelming atmosphere is one of camaraderie. (The perspective of those who are involved on the business side of things may be different, of course!)

What do you think of dictionaries commenting on current events? Like Merriam-Webster’s popular Twitter feed.

The perceived authority of the modern dictionary is based on its status as an impartial, evidence-based reference work. When a particular word rises in prominence in connection with current events, sharing factual information about it based on lexicographical data and knowledge is a valuable way for dictionaries to contribute to an evidence-based discourse about the use of language.

Are we creating more words now than ever before?

It’s impossible to know whether we are actually creating more words, but it is undeniably true we are more aware of them and they are able to spread more quickly on a global scale. This is particularly true of slang and informal language.

A hundred years ago, a teenager in the Chicago suburbs might have invented a cool new word, but in most cases only a few of her friends would ever have heard her say it. In 2014, Kayla Newman invented the phrase “on fleek” in a Vine, and within months, it was a fixture in the popular lexicon of English around the world. (Though it has not yet been entered in the OED.) Because of social media, there is now a public digital record of a huge amount of communication that in earlier eras would have been private. And with the rise of digital media generally, published content is more accessible and searchable than ever before. From the perspective of a lexicographer, it is an embarrassment of riches.