How are words added to the dictionary?
Our guest this week is a lexicographer. It is someone who studies words and, in this case, edits dictionaries. Emily Brewster is Editor-in-Chief at Merriam-Webster and host of the Word Matters podcast.
Emily answers a question from 8-year-old Emma, Kentucky, who wants to know how words are added to the dictionary. But before we can answer that, we’ll tackle 7-year-old Julia’s question, “How are new words created?” Join us for an episode on how words are created, when they have reached a critical level of use to get their own dictionary entry, and when words are deleted from the dictionary. Get ready for a nerd word!
“How are words added to the dictionary? -Emma, 8, Kentucky
Lexicographers like Emily Brewster read and listen a lot and pay attention to new words people use. They collect these examples and determine the number of instances of the word and the different types of sources that use the word.
“If all the examples only appear on TikTok, then that tells us one thing about the word. But as soon as they also appear in, you know, a magazine that you would see at the dentist, then that tells us something else about the status of the word, ”Emily explains.“ So we’re always looking for information, evidence, of how words are used by people who speak English. And when we have enough evidence that the word is really a part of the language, it’s a word most people will already recognize when they hear it, that’s when we know it is. ready to be added to the dictionary. “
For example, the word COVID-19 is a word coined by the World Health Organization about a year and a half ago. “It entered our dictionary faster than any other word in dictionary history has ever been added. Because what we knew immediately was that this word was not going to go away, that everything the world was talking about that word, ”says Emily.
Sometimes dictionary editors update the definition of already included words. For example, the definitions of “pod” and “bubble” were updated last January to include a new meaning: people you might have banded together with when you weren’t seeing other people because of the pandemic.
Other new words recently added to the dictionary include: “makerspace”, where people come together in a common space and often share tools to create their own projects; “BIPOC”, abbreviation of Black, Indigenous and People of Color; and “second gentleman”, referring to Vice President’s husband Kamala Harris.
Once it has been established that a word is widely used, an editor will carefully read the evidence for the word used and formulate a meaning in very careful language. Another editor will determine the age of a word and its first use, another will examine the history of the word, and the word will get a pronunciation. Then it is ready to be added to the dictionary.
Merriam-Webster updates their online dictionary with new words or new word definitions a few times a year. Emily says words aren’t usually taken from dictionaries, but editors choose words that appear in printed dictionaries.