12 Things You Might Not Know About Dictionaries

StanRohrer, iStock
StanRohrer, iStock

At first glance, the dictionary seems pretty straightforward. Words are listed alphabetically, and you simply locate the right page and scan until you find the word you’re looking for. But there’s a lot you might not know about the dictionary, such as how new words are added and why Noah Webster learned Sanskrit to write his dictionary. So without further ado, read on to discover a dozen things you might not know about various dictionaries.

1. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO ADD A NEW WORD.

very old dictionary cover
Housing Works Thrift Shops, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When people use a word or phrase frequently enough that it appears in widely read print and online publications, lexicographers take notice. First, they collect citations of the word, documenting the source it appeared in and recording its contextual meaning. Then, lexicographers conduct database research, searching for evidence that people from diverse backgrounds have used the word over a period of time. Finally, dictionary editors review the evidence and decide whether or not to include the new word in an upcoming edition of the dictionary. Thanks to this lengthy process, you can now find modern words such as manspread, presstitute, and athleisure in several dictionaries.

2. THE FIRST ENGLISH DICTIONARIES ONLY INCLUDED DIFFICULT WORDS.

Dictionary page with the word 'neanderthaloid.'
Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

We think of dictionaries as comprehensive tomes containing everything from antelope and apple to zeitgeist and zootrophy, but early English dictionaries didn't contain any simple, common words. In the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks in part to the Renaissance's classical influence, English doubled its vocabulary by incorporating words from other languages. People needed to consult word lists to look up these new, difficult words that they hadn't heard before. In 1604, a teacher named Robert Cawdrey compiled a list of words into A Table Alphabeticall, which defined difficult English words borrowed from Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew. Throughout the 17th century, other English men published lists of hard words with easy to understand definitions, and people turned to the dictionary to learn these words.

3. NOAH WEBSTER LEARNED 26 LANGUAGES TO WRITE HIS DICTIONARY.

Handwritten drafts of dictionary entries by Noah Webster, circa 1790-1800.
Handwritten drafts of dictionary entries by Noah Webster, circa 1790-1800.
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although Noah Webster wasn't the first American to produce a dictionary, his name has become synonymous with the American dictionary. Hoping to help create a uniquely American lexicon, with Americanized spelling and pronunciation of words, Webster wrote An American Dictionary of the English Language. To thoroughly research word origins and sources, Webster got serious about becoming an etymology expert. He learned 26 languages, including Sanskrit and Old English, to write his dictionary. Published in 1828, it contained 70,000 entries and included the first definitions of "American" words such as chowder and skunk.

4. THE FIRST MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY COST SIX DOLLARS.

Tattered page of an old dictionary.
GCShutter, iStock

After Webster died in 1843, George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to revise Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged. The two brothers printed and sold books in Springfield, Massachusetts, and their intellectual property purchase paid off. In the fall of 1847, the Merriams issued the first revised Webster dictionary for six dollars. The book sold well, and the G. & C. Merriam Co. was eventually renamed Merriam-Webster, Inc. in 1982. Merriam-Webster continues to publish popular print and electronic dictionaries today.

5. IT TOOK ALMOST 50 YEARS TO CREATE THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY.

Picture of a dinosaur in the dictionary.
huppypie, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1857, the Philological Society of London first called for a comprehensive English language dictionary, including words from the 12th century to the present. In 1879, the Philological Society joined forces with Oxford University Press, and work commenced. In 1884, Oxford University Press published the first part of the dictionary (A to Ant), and the final volume was published in 1928. Called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the dictionary listed more than 400,000 words and phrases. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the most respected and widely used dictionaries.

6. J.R.R. TOLKIEN RESEARCHED WORD ETYMOLOGIES FOR THE OED.

Phrase by JRR Tolkien
Corey Taratuta, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

After serving in World War I, J.R.R. Tolkien worked as an editor's assistant on the OED. His job was to research the etymologies of certain words that started with the letter w. Tolkien also composed multiple drafts of definitions for words such as waggle, walnut, walrus, and waistcoat. After his time at the OED, Tolkien went on to work as an English professor and write The Lord of the Rings. Subsequently, the OED has added terms that Tolkien himself coined, such as hobbit, mithril, and mathom.

7. SOMETIMES FAKE WORDS MAKE THEIR WAY INTO THE DICTIONARY.

Magnifying glass looking at a dictionary.
Alessio_slo, iStock

Due to human error, a handful of fake words have appeared in dictionaries over the centuries. Some words, like phantomnation, which appeared in an 1864 edition of Webster's, are the result of missing hyphens. Others are typographical errors. A 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary defined dord as density, the result of confusion over spacing. Some dictionary editors have even intentionally included fake words, such as esquivalience in The New Oxford American Dictionary, to protect their copyright.

8. THE OED NEEDS YOUR HELP.

Copies of the Oxford English Dictionary
mrpolyonymousvia, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although many scholars consider the OED to be the definitive authority on dictionaries, the OED needs your help. At any given time, the dictionary's editors are researching the history of certain words and phrases, and The OED Appeals allows the public to submit evidence (via the comments section) of the earliest record of certain words. Camouflage and Arnold Palmer are two entries that the OED has recently researched, so if you have old books or magazines that mention some weird word, let the OED know. You might just see your contribution in the dictionary's next edition.

9. SAMPLE SENTENCES FROM DICTIONARIES CAN MAKE INTERESTING SHORT STORIES.

A pair of reading glasses on a dictionary.
frankieleon, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

You might think that all those sample sentences in the dictionary are random, but you'd only be partially right. The phrases are deliberately chosen to show the word in a clear context with other words that it's often associated with, and are ideally so boring that you don't even think twice about them. Illustrator Jez Burrows has connected these random sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary into short stories. "Often I’ll find at least one [word] that makes a good jumping-off point and I’ll start to flesh out some sort of vague narrative, then work backwards to imagine what sort of words might give rise to the sentences I'm looking for," Burrows said of his process.

10. A LOT OF WEIRD DICTIONARIES EXIST.

row of dictionaries
Liz West, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although most people are familiar with Webster, the OED, and Dictionary.com, there are plenty of obscure or downright bizarre dictionaries. For example, you can find plenty of rhyming dictionaries and reverse dictionaries (that are organized by a theme rather than alphabetized). Scrolling through Wye's Dictionary Of Improbable Words: All-Vowel Words And All-Consonant Words might help you find some uncommon words to win your next Scrabble game. And Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words contains weird English words that have appeared in at least one dictionary in the past. For example, you might learn that junkettaceous means worthless and cuggermugger means whispered gossiping.

11. URBAN DICTIONARY CAPITALIZES OFF OF BEING A SLANG HAVEN.

Entry in the Urban Dictionary
Terry Freedman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary, the online, crowdsourced listing of millions of slang words and phrases, is beloved by middle schoolers and anyone trying to understand the latest slang terms. But Urban Dictionary is more than a dictionary. It also has an online store that sells mugs, T-shirts, an official card game, and plush dolls inspired by dirty phrases that the dictionary has helped to popularize (like Golden Shower and Donkey Punch). If you're unfamiliar with the definitions of those disgusting phrases, we'll let you look them up, but don’t say we didn't warn you.

12. A CALIFORNIA SCHOOL DISTRICT CONSIDERED BANNING MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY.

mrd00dman, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2010, a school district in Southern California temporarily removed all copies of the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate Edition from elementary school classrooms. Why remove the dictionary? After a parent told the principal of Oak Meadows Elementary School that the dictionary contained an explicit definition of a sex act, the school district decided to remove the books. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents decided that the dictionary was age-appropriate, and the copies of Merriam-Webster were returned to the classroom. Here's hoping that parent never discovers Urban Dictionary!

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Benefits of Sarcasm, According to Science

AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images
AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images

Writing of her future demise, author and humorist Dorothy Parker once observed that her epitaph might read, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Celebrated for her scathing wit and wordplay, the late Parker might agree that sarcasm held tangible benefits. Doled out with care, ironic remarks—usually defined as communication that humorously conveys your intent through language that appears to be the opposite of what you mean—can amuse friends, lighten the mood, or broadcast your wit. But there’s more to sarcasm than simply eliciting a laugh. It turns out that the perks of your caustic muttering might have some scientific support. Take a look at a few peer-reviewed consequences to your snappy comebacks.

1. Sarcasm and humor might make you appear more confident, particularly at work.

In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers evaluated adults on their responses to some candid remarks about fictional pet food and travel companies, among other subjects. Those with zingers were perceived as having more competence and confidence. “The successful use of humor—telling jokes that are funny and appropriate—can raise your status because it makes you appear more confident and more competent,” says co-author Thomas Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Confidence and competence are two of the key traits that determine whether we give someone status. The reason for this is because we want the individuals who have influence in a group to be those who are capable of leading it.”

Humor and sarcasm work to reinforce these traits, Bitterly tells Mental Floss, because humor itself is a risk. “Before we tell a joke, especially to people we do not know well, it’s difficult to know with certainty if our audience will find it funny and appropriate. If they find it unfunny and inappropriate, they will think that we lack competence and we will lose status. Given that humor is risky, telling a joke signals confidence,” he says.

2. Sarcasm can improve creativity.

In a 2015 paper [PDF] published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers (including those at Harvard and Columbia business schools) made the case for sarcasm facilitating creative thinking. In a series of experiments, participants gave or received positive, neutral, or sarcastic responses with a partner. Those in the sarcastic groups performed better at creative tasks—like problem-solving on paper—after the fact.

"This is because both sarcasm construction and sarcasm interpretation are conducive to abstract thinking, a key cognitive precursor to creative thinking," lead author Li Huang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tells Mental Floss. Huang points to a common sarcastic comment aimed at someone wasting time in the workplace: "Don't work too hard." The intended meaning is likely to "work harder." Both the speaker and recipient benefit, Huang says, because both need to process the underlying message. The speaker must translate the admonishment to sarcasm, and the recipient has to consider what the speaker really meant. That abstraction fosters creative thinking because creativity is needed to discern the truth and not the literal meaning of the statement.

"In this way, to construct or interpret sarcasm is to traverse the psychological distance between the stated and the intended meaning through abstract thinking," Huang says.

There is one word of caution: Sarcasm tends to have this effect when it’s lobbed between two parties who know and trust one another. With strangers, it might simply come off as rude or confusing.

3. Sarcasm can make criticism seem almost pleasant.

Want to offer some constructive commentary without feeling like a jerk? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, co-author Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, examined how adults and children interpreted sarcastic commentary. The generally agreeable reactions by adults to criticism indicates it can be wrapped in an amusing remark that reduces the chance for the listener to feel offended.

“The use of indirect language allows the speaker to criticize the addressee indirectly which is perceived as more polite than a direct, literal insult,” Glenwright tells Mental Floss. "Speakers may use sarcasm to deliver insults in professional or social settings where they want to criticize another person in a less-harsh manner.”

4. Sarcasm can make for better social bonding.

When we pass along a humorous observation and someone agrees with it, we’re strengthening our bond with that individual, according to Glenwright. “[Sarcasm] improves social bonding between the speaker and the addressee,” she says. “Sarcasm can also be used to convey humor and jocularity which can improve mood both in the speaker and addressee.”

5. Sarcasm might make you appear more intelligent.

Sarcasm and humor alike share a common trait: They require creative thinking that’s rapidly deployed to analyze a situation. Depending on the company, Bitterly says that a clever retort could potentially have people thinking more highly of you. “Saying something that is funny and appropriate is difficult,” he says. “It requires being able to recognize an opportunity for humor—'did someone just say something I know a funny response for'—[and] being able to quickly generate or recall a funny response and being able to predict how the audience is going to respond. On top of those things, delivery and timing also matter …. We tend to view people who manage to successfully pull off all of these things as being more intelligent, and we see that reflected in the way we refer to them.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER