How To: Get A New Word In the Dictionary

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GOOD NEWS: It's Possible
New words pop up in the dictionary all the time, thanks to a handy—and almost maniacally extensive—editorial system. If you want your word to make into the big books, you'll need to get it past the gate-keepers.

Step 1: Invent a Word and, More Importantly, Get It In Print

Over at the Oxford English Dictionary, the life of a new word starts out in the Reading Program department, where about 50 people spend their 9 to 5 lives gobbling up all the printed material they can get their hands on: Novels, television transcripts, song lyrics, newspapers, magazines"¦anything. They're on the lookout for new words (or innovative uses of old, mundane words). New discoveries are forwarded to a searchable electronic database of quotes, which Oxford calls "Incomings."

Step 2: Butter Up Your Editor
In our experience, this is pretty much "Step 2" in any creative undertaking. And it's no different in the world of words. Each new word under consideration is assigned to a specific editor, who then begins tracking its use and popularity in the long-term. How long term? Try 5 years. The rule of thumb at Oxford is that a word can't be included in the dictionary until it's appeared five times, in five different sources, over a period of 5 years. And we don't know for certain, but if we were word editors, we'd be a lot more likely to notice that all-important fifth usage if there was a bottle of 12-year-old Scotch left on our desk. Just sayin'.

Step 3: Stay Popular Or Perish
Yes, the dictionary is just like junior high. Dictionaries are meant to record English as a living language, not a museum showpiece. So when a word falls out of use, it can kiss its spot on the all-dictionary cheerleading squad good-bye. In 2003, the good folks at Merriam Webster opened the doors for 10,000 up-and-coming new words and usages, including: "phat," "Frankenfood," and "cheesed off." (This should give you hope for your favorite word. Whatever it is, it's gotta be better than "cheesed off.") But, that same year, several hundred words—each one once as popular, in its own way, as "phat"—got the axe. Among them, "snollygoster," which once (back when your Grandma had all her teeth) referred to an unscrupulous politician, and "Vitamin G," which hasn't technically disappeared but is now called "riboflavin."


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January 9, 2007 - 4:40am
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