Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Look it Up! A Dictionary by Any Other Name...

News recently broke about words like chillax and vuvuzela getting added to the Oxford Dictionary of English. Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review, noticed that many reports of the story couldn't get the name of the dictionary right. Here is her guide for the perplexed.

Twitter was all, ah, atwitter last week because a new edition of a dictionary came out, adding about 2,000 words to the "official" English language. Among those words were "chillax," "cool hunter," "turducken," and "vuvuzela."

On Twitter, and in some media stories, the new dictionary was variously named as the The Oxford English Dictionary, The New Oxford American Dictionary, The Oxford Dictionary of English, and simply, The Oxford Dictionary.

Only one of those is correct, and therein lies a problem.

The dictionary that "legitimized" these words was The Oxford Dictionary of English, which debuted in 1998, as the, um, New Oxford Dictionary of English. It's not the same dictionary as any of the others, though many of the same words are in all of them, and they all share the Oxford name. There are also "compact," "abridged," and "concise" versions of those dictionaries, as well as versions for various parts of the English-speaking world.

Dictionaries, like cars, have many models that are designed for different audiences. Want
historical usage and the etymology of a word? The OED is the granddaddy, in that it never deletes definitions or uses, only adds to them. Want to know how words are used in the United States? NOAD might be for you. Want to know how words are now being used anywhere English is spoken, regardless of local usage? The ODE could be the one you want.

For Americans, "Webster" is the word that immediately brings to mind dictionaries. Here, too, confusion reigns. Webster's New College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Webster's (First, Second, Third) International Dictionary, Random House Webster's Dictionary, Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary ... well, you get the idea.

How to choose? Part will depend on what you want the dictionary for. If you just want to know how to spell a word, almost any dictionary will do, as long as it's less than ten years old or so. (Almost no one spells it "employe" anymore.) If you want to know what a word means, though, you start getting into the realm of choice. Some dictionaries don't admit new words until they're firmly established in common usage. That helps explain why "vuvuzela" made it so quickly: The World Cup this year exposed millions of people (some unhappily) to the sound of and word for the horn that is traditionally blown by fans at soccer matches in Africa. Some keep all definitions, others delete ones that are no longer "au courant."

Some words are not really "new," but just new to that dictionary. "Turducken," for example, which is a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, has been around by that name at least since the 1980s, and had probably been sampled around Louisiana for a lot longer.

Some dictionaries are much more liberal in accepting new words, even if they have not reached "common" status. (In less liberal moments, I call those "slut dictionaries." You can figure out why.) There is nothing wrong with those dictionaries, but taking them as gospel may not be appropriate for publications that reach diverse audiences. "Cool hunter" (someone whose job is to seek out the latest trends) and "chillax" (a conflation of "chill out" and "relax," pronounced chill-AX), may produce only confusion in many readers. And it's probably not a good idea to use a word if you have to search for a dictionary that includes the meaning you're using. That's why publications will usually have a "house" dictionary, so everyone is literally on the same page.

The dictionary favored by the Associated Press and many news publications, Webster's New World College Dictionary, tries to walk the line between fad and fuddy-duddy. Though who uses "firetruck" is a mystery.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 25th 2010, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
May I say that the definitive English Dictionary in Britain is simply called The Oxford English Dictionary (now online at http://dictionary.oed.com/entrance.dtl/)? There are variants, as you say, but OED is the Daddy, as one might say.
There is a Scots Dictionary compiled by a Scots university, I think Aberdeen but do not know with certainty.
Wednesday August 25th 2010, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
It's also important to keep in mind that all of the "Oxford" dictionaries come from one publisher (Oxford Univ. Press), though they may have different editorial staff (as we discussed in the comments here). The various "Websters" in the US, however, come from several different publishers -- Merriam (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, Webster's New International), Wiley (Webster's New World), Random House (RH Webster's), Houghton Mifflin (Webster's New College), etc. Some background on how "Webster" got genericized here.

Geoffrey: You're probably referring to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, which is based at the University of Dundee.
Wednesday August 25th 2010, 1:14 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
I was just talking with students this morning about the OED. Wrote it on the board this way:

Oxford
English
Dictionary

and underlined the initial letters. Thanks to Geoffrey for the link, but you do have to subscribe. I tell my students that our college library pays good money from their tuition and fees to subscribe to this service, so they need to make use of it. I am requiring members of one class to subscribe to VT, however, and they will be reading this article. Important for them to know that dictionaries get created by human beings. Therefore, I really appreciated Merrill's link to the article that mentions "firetruck" since it is written as a parody of Genesis--a play on dividing the waters from the waters--and makes fun of the assumption that spellings and usages come down from on high. (Way too cool and serendipitous that my World Lit class read the opening lines of Genesis today.) Anyone interested in the OED should read _The Professor and the Madman_! Joyce
Friday November 26th 2010, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
I use the Oxford Dictionary of English, available at www.oxfordreference.com. You have to subscribe to but is well worth the money, since it provides access to well over 100 reference books, including language, medicine, science, quotations, etc.

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Meet the "Turducken"
"Turducken" was one of more than 2,000 new terms added to the Oxford Dictionary of English.
Don't believe the hype about a secret cabal of Oxford lexicographers.
The 2008 additions to dictionaries from Merriam-Webster and Oxford.