A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Define Your Terms!
"How do I get my word in the dictionary?" This is a question that lexicographers in the Lounge and elsewhere are asked more often than you might expect. While it might be unkind to characterize the sort of person who asks the question, we hope it will be instructive to describe how new words actually make their way into dictionaries. That, in turn, should reveal why there are probably many better things to do in life than getting one's word in the dictionary. By doing some of them, you might get your word in anyway.
Before the advent of gigantic and fully indexed electronic corpora, along with the Internet and the various search engines that serve it, there was arguably a more subjective component to the editorial decision to add a word to a dictionary. These days, the process of choosing new inclusions tends to be relentlessly algorithmic. The test for a word worthy of a first-time dictionary entry is threefold:
- demonstrable frequency of usage;
- likelihood that the word will still be around, say, five years from now;
- adequate distribution across a range of literature that makes it sufficiently likely a reader or speaker will encounter the word and need a definition for it.
If (1) were the sole criterion, all dictionaries would be more unwieldy and not regularly satisfying. Criterion (2) is a judgment call that lexicographers can usually make in an informed way; they don't often get it wrong. But it is criterion (3) that dictionary editors are most sensitive to, and this barrier to entry keeps a huge number of nonce words, jargon, and fad words out of authoritative dictionaries -- despite the wishes of their promoters.
Though it is rarely stated so baldly, there is often a subtext to the question "How do I get my word in the dictionary?" The subtext is so that everyone will know it was me. This is an even weightier task: of the words that carry etymologies in dictionaries, only a tiny fraction identify an individual, and only the Oxford English Dictionary is in the business of naming the authors of earliest known citations, which is a rather insecure category to be in anyway (see link below).
One of the more illuminating ways to learn how words get into the dictionary is to look at the credentials of some of the ones already there. We don't mean words that have roots in Old English, but words added to English dictionaries in modern times (let's say, broadly, from the 19th century onwards), when it can be presumed that a word accepted into general usage filled a niche that wanted filling.
This perspective points up a number of ways that you can get your word in the dictionary. The one that comes to mind first is to invent something the world can't live without; doing so usually gives you naming rights. Such is the case with Polaroid, vernier, and by a slightly circuitous route, fairy light. Another way is to discover a phenomenon in nature not formerly observed by humankind; doing this doesn't necessarily guarantee naming rights, but it gives you a pretty good claim to them: thus Sir Humphrey Davy discovered and devised a name for aluminum (or aluminium if you're his fellow countryman) -- and mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot first described and named fractals.
Immortality via the small print in dictionaries is often a posthumous achievement. It sometimes results because the thing named after you wasn't actually on the radar screen during your lifetime (such as angstrom, curie, watt), but was in fact named to honor your memory. These eponyms were of course inspired by achievement, rather than the desire of the honoree to be remembered. It can also happen that "your word" did not fully come into its own until long after your death: such is the case with maverick: the name of a Texas rancher who didn't brand his cattle. The main use of the word today is to designate an independent thinker, but this figurative use, somewhat removed from its early designation of an unbranded animal, did not develop until well after Maverick's death.
Another route to dictionary documentation -- also posthumous in most cases -- is to be so utterly original in what you do that everything in your wake that either resembles or imitates your style is designated with the same adjective: thus Dickensian, Audenesque, Coleridgean, and a host of others.
The digitization of literature (literature in the broadest sense, that is: "published writing") has revolutionized the way that dictionaries are compiled, and has also made it possible for anyone who can type - or operate a scanner or copy a file, for that matter - to be a publisher of literature. This development is perhaps what has given hope to some wannabe wordsmiths. They have developed the notion that by promulgating their "word," and campaigning for its propagation via their blog or other self-promotional tool, they might bring their word to the attention of lexicographers, and then get the word into the dictionary.
Can this possibly work? The first part surely can: a huge number of words come to the attention of lexicographers that never receive the imprimatur of a dictionary entry. A promoted word of this kind would be noted and tracked, but if it never traveled beyond the blogs of a dozen software engineers (or journalists or day traders) who all know each other, it would rightly be deemed as unworthy of appearing in a mainstream print dictionary.
In general then, it is a lengthy and intricate process that lands a new word in the dictionary, and the process is not usually under the control of the coiner or promoter of the word. Think of it this way: a dictionary definition is to a word what a birth certificate is to a baby; a useful credential and one that is required in some circumstances, but in essence a post factum accessory that is by no means necessary for survival. And just as you would suspect the motive of someone who produced a baby merely to get the birth certificate, you should also suspect someone who circulates a word merely with the intention of getting it in the dictionary.
So in answer to the question we began with: go out and do great things -- and don't hold your breath. Lexicographers will be Googling you soon enough when your linguistic contribution merits their attention.
If you're inspired to plan your lexical contribution to posterity you may want to consult Wikipedia's lists of eponyms to see the sorts of things that might be named after you:
Our colleague Erin McKean recently wrote about electronic antedating of words in print; her article serves as fair warning to those who would claim to have invented or first used a particular word: