How Does A Word Make It Into The Dictionary?

Illustration for article titled How Does A Word Make It Into The Dictionary?

Every year a handful of new words make it into the dictionary, but how do they get there and who chooses them? Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam Webster, explains to us just how our dictionaries get made.


Stamper joined us today to answer all our questions about the definitions and origins of words, ranging from the hardest word she ever defined ("god") to the secret origins of the word stew ("which now refers to a hearty and delightful soup . . . but used to refer to a whorehouse").

Especially interesting, though, was this look at just what goes into defining a word:

Defining words is brain-twisting, amazing, crazy-making. Whenever an editor is hired at Merriam-Webster, they take what we call "Style and Defining" classes, where you learn how to tear apart English grammar (since you will be the person who has to analyze what part of speech a word will be) and draft dictionary definitions. When it's time to work on a dictionary, you get a section of the alphabet and all the written evidence we've collected for that word. You read the evidence and you decide whether it's already covered by the existing definition. If not, you draft a definition for it.

Most of the time, the definition is pretty easy to deduce from the context, but sometimes it's not. The hardest words to define are the smallest: "but," "as," "be," "go," "run"—words like that. You can spend months on one of those words, and you get so deep into in that you begin to look a little Uncanny Valleyish by the end of it: real people encounter you, and while you can have a conversation, they are put off by your empty, dead eyes which only stare inward at the diminishing point that was once your humanity.

So, yeah, it's great!

But, though the coveted spot in the rolls of the dictionary may seem like quite a big step in the life of a word, maybe we shouldn't feel too bad for those that don't make the cut , says Stamper:

I sort of cringe when people talk about a word being made "official" once it's entered into the dictionary. The dictionary is a record of the language as it is used, so by the time a word is entered into the dictionary, it's already "official" in that it has widespread use in the language. Dictionaries are really not that cutting-edge.

Image: Miniature Danish-French dictionary / Tomasz Sienicki



I think his last point is quite important. Dictionaries are measured observations of language intended to explain vocabulary and usage.

Dictionaries are not the grand arbiter of language. Getting infuriated about new words is a waste of time. Language is constantly evolving: particularly English, which started as a blend of other languages and has no official institution to determine what is or isn't universally "correct".