Word Routes

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Dan Brown Lexicography: "Secret Vault of Non-Words!"

A lot of silly things get written about the craft of dictionary-making, but a story that appeared last week in the London-based Daily Telegraph just might be the most nonsensical article about lexicography in recent memory. The breathless headline reads, "Secret vault of words rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered." What a scoop! Has the Telegraph blown the lid off a cabal of Dictionary Illuminati worthy of a Dan Brown novel? Yeah, not so much.

The Telegraph quotes Luke Ngakane, a graphic design student at Kingston University:

"I was fascinated when I read that the Oxford University Press has a vault where all their failed words, which didn't make the dictionary, are kept. This store room contains millions of words and some of them date back hundreds of years. It's a very hush-hush vault and I really struggled to find out information about it because it is so secretive. But when I spoke to them they were happy to confirm its existence and although I didn't actually get to see the room they did send me some examples."

In his World Wide Words newsletter, Michael Quinion raises the obvious question: "So the supposedly secret vault is so secret that the OED's editors were willing to tell him all about it and what was in it?" Quinion continues, "Don't tell anyone, but I've been in this 'vault,' which is actually a rather boring office filled with filing cabinets housing citation slips (though almost everything's on computer these days)." As a sometime consultant to the OED, I can confirm Quinion's less-than-thrilling reality check. (But wait — if you're in a Dan Brown frame of mind, then you might think I'm simply part of the conspiracy! Any upstanding member of a cabal would, of course, swear that there is no cabal.)

The Telegraph article goes on to provide a list of "non-words" that Ngakane has incorporated into an art project. The implication is that these are rejects carefully guarded in the OED's "hush-hush vault." But the list mainly consists of warmed-over neologisms that have been floating around the Internet for a long time. An earlier article in This is the West Country about Ngakane's project is slightly more accurate: "Luke spoke to the Oxford University Press and trawled internet forums to find the most useful 'non-words.'" In other words, most of these "failed" words have little if anything to do with the OED in the first place.

I was immediately suspicious of the "non-words" listed in the Telegraph article when I saw the first one: "Accordionated – being able to drive and refold a road map at the same time." Talk about a golden oldie. That dates back to the 1980s, from Rich Hall's popular Sniglets book series. (A sniglet is "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary but probably should.") It has circulated in online sniglet collections ever since.

Looking deeper into the list, I felt a creeping sense of déjà vu. It turns out that a healthy majority of the entries come from a single source. In 2005, Merriam-Webster asked users of its online dictionary, "What's your favorite word that's not in the dictionary?" It compiled a top ten list (and later, with much fanfare, announced that the top vote-getter, ginormous, would enter the next edition of the Collegiate Dictionary). Beyond the top ten, Merriam-Webster provided a list of "Previous Favorite Words (Not in the Dictionary)." Of the 39 words listed by the Telegraph, a whopping 27 of them — from asphinxiation ("being sick to death of unanswerable puzzles or riddles") to wurfing ("the act of surfing the Internet while at work") — come from Merriam-Webster's 2005 selection of "previous favorite words."

Of the remaining words on the Telegraph list, some (such as freegan, griefer, and nonversation) have their own entries in Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary, an ongoing compendium of user-generated suggestions. A few others have actually achieved dictionary status already. Earworm, locavore, and pharming can all be found in the latest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. The COED is a different operation at Oxford University Press from the OED, and because it's a smaller, more frequently revised dictionary, it can incorporate new words more quickly than the magisterial OED.

Thus, the Telegraph's collection of words supposedly rejected by the OED includes ephemeral ad-hoc coinages that would never be seriously considered by any major dictionary, alongside words that could very well enter the OED in the near future (and in some cases have already entered its Concise sibling). Nothing earth-shattering about that, but of course the harmless drudgework of lexicography doesn't lend itself terribly well to sensationalistic tabloid headlines.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 10th 2010, 5:51 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Isn't there just a whiff of pomposity about taking seriously humorous coinages such as "asphinxiation" and "wurfing"? Of course they raise a wry smile but please, let it stop there.
Tuesday August 10th 2010, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
The premise of the Daily Telegraph article appears self-defeating to anybody who understands how dictionaries work. Since dictionaries track usage, and therefore words that are both published and disseminated, the very idea of a stygian vault somewhere to which secret words are fed is, at the very least, perplexing. These are not chemical formulas or bank account numbers: just words, many of which frothed into life and then petered out. Anyone who searches intently will probably find them. Plus, the notion of "non-words" is not very persuasive, unlike, say, The Phrontistery's "Lost Words" ( here).

Now, here's a slightly off-topic question that you are in a privileged position to answer. You said the "COED is a different operation at Oxford University Press from the OED." For us dictionary enthusiasts who aren't lexicographers, how can we tell which lexiographical operations are different at OUP? I was waiting to buy the forthcoming New Oxford American Dictionary, but I didn't know if it would just be an abridged OED that incorporated the OED updates. That was the impression I had of the COED, and for that reason I had planned not to buy it. Does OUP specify somewhere which of its many lexicographical projects run separately?
Tuesday August 10th 2010, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Anon.: The basic division in OUP's dictionary program(me) is between historical and current dictionaries. On the historical side are the OED and the 2-volume Shorter OED, and on the current side are the single-volume dictionaries for the general market: the UK has the Oxford Dictionary of English, the Concise, the Compact, etc., while the US has NOAD and other smaller dictionaries. The current dictionaries have some historical kinship to the OED, but they're separately staffed and managed. So the forthcoming edition of NOAD will not simply be an abridgement of the OED -- only the Shorter OED fits that description (but even the Shorter can be revised to include new words and meanings more quickly than the OED).

Hope that helps!
Tuesday August 10th 2010, 6:56 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Ben: Thanks a lot. That does help. Because I own the OED, my main concern was staying away from OUP dictionaries that would just unload an abridgement of the OED on my desk. Your answer cleared things up. Thanks again.

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