Word Routes

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When New Words Reach a Tipping Point, It Can Be a Game Changer

If there's one thing that dictionary publishers have learned, it's that announcing new words added to their latest editions is good for generating some media attention — and also generating public hand-wringing over what the new entries say about the state of our society and our language.

Take the latest batch to make the grade for Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. As in past years, Merriam-Webster has decided on 100 updates to its 2012 edition (some are brand-new entries, while others are expansions of existing ones). Here are 25 of the new entries, as they appear in the dictionary (well, we've censored one entry a little bit):

  • aha moment n (1939) : a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension
  • brain cramp n (1982) : an instance of temporary mental confusion resulting in an error or lapse of judgment
  • bucket list n (2006) : a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying
  • cloud computing n (2006) : the practice of storing regularly used computer data on multiple servers that can be accessed through the Internet
  • copernicium n (2009) : a short-lived artificially produced radioactive element that has 112 protons
  • craft beer n (1986) : a specialty beer produced in limited quantities : microbrew
  • earworm n (1802) 1 : corn earworm 2 : a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind
  • energy drink n (1904) : a usually carbonated beverage that typically contains caffeine and other ingredients (as taurine and ginseng) intended to increase the drinker’s energy
  • e-reader n (1999) : a handheld electronic device designed to be used for reading e-books and similar material
  • f-bomb n (1988) : the word f**k — used metaphorically as a euphemism
  • flexitarian n (1998) : one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish
  • game changer n (1993) : a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way
  • gassed adj (1919) ... 2 slang : drained of energy : spent, exhausted
  • gastropub n (1996) : a pub, bar, or tavern that also offers meals of high quality
  • geocaching n (2000) : a game in which players are given the geographical coordinates of a cache of items which they search for with a GPS device
  • life coach n (1986) :  an advisor who helps people make decisions, set and reach goals, or deal with problems
  • man cave n (1992) : a room or space (as in a basement) designed according to the taste of the man of the house to be used as his personal area for hobbies and leisure activities
  • mash-up n (1859) : something created by combining elements from two or more sources: as a : a piece of music created by digitally overlaying an instrumental track with a vocal track from a different recording  b : a movie or video having characters or situations from other sources  c : a Web service or application that integrates data and functionalities from various online sources
  • obesogenic adj (1986) :  promoting excessive weight gain :  producing obesity
  • sexting n (2007) : the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone
  • shovel-ready adj (1998) of a construction project or site : ready for the start of work 
  • systemic risk n (1982) : the risk that the failure of one financial institution (as a bank) could cause other interconnected institutions to fail and harm the economy as a whole
  • tipping point n (1959) : the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place
  • toxic adj  (1664) ... 4 : relating to or being an asset that has lost so much value that it cannot be sold on the market
  • underwater adj (1672) ... 3 : having, relating to, or being a mortgage loan for which more is owed than the property securing the loan is worth

The Associated Press was first to report on the dictionary update, under the headline "F-bomb makes it into mainstream dictionary." But despite the risque nature of f-bomb, its inclusion in Merriam-Webster hardly signals the end of civil society. In fact, the Merriam lexicographers have taken a somewhat conservative approach to this lexical item. It has already merited admission to dictionaries from American Heritage and Collins, and Oxford English Dictionary editor at large Jesse Sheidlower noted on Twitter that f-bomb has been in the OED since 2008.

Whenever these lists are publicized, the more frivolous or provocative words elicit strong responses. Sometimes those responses can be a bit delayed. For instance, Oxford Dictionaries Online (the hipper cousin of the OED) put out a couple of quarterly updates earlier in the year, but only recently have they attracted much attention, thanks to a post on the popular site Mental Floss (which apparently combined the ODO updates with some from last year's Concise Oxford). Here are some typical responses from Mental Floss readers when confronted with such words as jeggings, whatevs, woot, and noob:

I weep for the English language.

I dont want to live here anymore,... Beam me up Scotty

This can't be true. No. No.

Even if the inclusion of slangy and evanescent terms seems unbecoming for major dictionaries, there's nothing particularly earth-shattering about lexicographers treating these less-than-serious words in a serious way. It's all part of the rich diversity of English, and there's no point in turning up our noses at words that appear to some as improper or unworthy.

What's more, dictionaries are increasingly relying on their own readers for suggestions of new slang and other items that their editors might have missed. To find out about how the U.K.-based Collins English Dictionary is "crowdsourcing" suggestions for new words, check out my latest column in the Boston Globe. There you'll learn the definitions of such novelties as floordrobe, bridezilla, and one of my favorites, mobydickulous. Which words do you think should make the cut and enter the major dictionaries?


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. 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 14th 2012, 4:41 AM
Comment by: hakhu (India)
Should be useful. I like it. Thanks
Tuesday August 14th 2012, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Odd that all three examples for "mash-up" involve technologies that are considerably beyond the first-cite date (1859). Very prescient of English to invent this word for future use! ;-)
Tuesday August 14th 2012, 4:24 PM
Comment by: Licia C. (Milano Italy)
I think "content curation" and related vocabulary should make the cut.
Oxford Dictionaries appear to be the only major online dictionary that includes the more recent meaning of "curate" – select, organize, and present (suitable content, typically for online or computational use) – but I could not find it elsewhere.
Thursday August 16th 2012, 8:46 AM
Comment by: silvia S.
Very useful , mainly for foreigners like me, who want to keep learning and don´t have the time to read newspapers and check meanings so often as i would like.Thanks!

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