Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Dictionaries Roll Out New Words

Dictionary publishers don't get too many opportunities for creating PR buzz, but one surefire way of getting some attention is to announce the new words (and new senses of old words) that have been added in the latest update to a particular dictionary. In the past few days there have been new-word announcements for two major dictionaries, one in the US and one in the UK: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (also in its 11th edition, coincidentally enough). Let's take a look at what they're adding.

Merriam-Webster announced to the press that they're adding more than 100 new entries to their latest revision of the Collegiate Dictionary. They're playing their cards a bit close to the vest, however, publicizing only 25 of those new words. Here they are, each listed with the year of the word's earliest known appearance:

  • air quotes (1989): gesture made by raising and flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands, used to call attention to a spoken word or expression.
  • dark energy (1998): hypothetical form of energy that produces a force that opposes gravity and is thought to cause the accelerating expansion of the universe.
  • dirty bomb (1956): bomb designed to release radioactive material.
  • dwarf planet (1993): celestial body that orbits the sun and has a spherical shape, but is too small to disturb other objects from its orbit.
  • edamame (1951): immature green soybeans, usually in the pod.
  • fanboy (1919): boy who is an enthusiastic devotee, such as of comics or movies.
  • infinity pool (1992): outdoor swimming pool with an edge over which water flows into a trough, but seems to flow into the horizon.
  • jukebox musical (1993): musical that features popular songs from the past.
  • kiteboarding (1996): the sport of riding on a small surfboard propelled across water by a large kite, to which the rider is harnessed.
  • malware (1990): software designed to interfere with a computer's normal functioning.
  • mental health day (1971): day that an employee takes off from work to relieve stress or renew vitality.
  • mondegreen (1954): word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung. From the mishearing in a Scottish ballad of "laid him on the green" as "Lady Mondegreen."
  • netroots (2003): grassroots political activists who communicate via the Internet, especially by blogs.
  • norovirus (2002): any of a genus of small round single-stranded RNA viruses; specifically, Norwalk virus.
  • pescatarian (1993): vegetarian whose diet includes fish.
  • phytonutrient (1994): bioactive, plant-derived compound (as resveratrol) associated with positive health effects.
  • pretexting (1992): presenting oneself as someone else to obtain private information.
  • prosecco (1881): a dry Italian sparkling wine.
  • racino (1995): racetrack at which slot machines are available for gamblers.
  • soju (1978): a Korean vodka distilled from rice.
  • subprime (1995) 1: having or being an interest rate that is higher than a prime rate and is extended especially to low-income borrowers; 2: extending or obtaining a subprime loan.
  • supercross (1983): motorcycle race held in a stadium on a dirt track having hairpin turns and high jumps.
  • Texas Hold 'em (1995): Poker in which each player is dealt two cards face down and all players share five cards dealt face-up.
  • webinar (1998): live, online educational presentation during which participating viewers can submit questions and comments.
  • wing nut (circa 1900): Slang: one who advocates extreme measures or changes; radical.

It's nice to see some of familiar friends on the Merriam-Webster list. Here on the VT, we've talked about mondegreens with linguist Geoffrey Pullum, and more recently netroots and wingnuts came up in our discussion with William Safire about the latest edition of his Political Dictionary. We've also touched on dwarf planet and subprime (more about the latter term in my next Word Routes).

Over across the pond, the Concise OED has added hundreds of new words and senses in its 2008 revision, and about 50 of them have been listed in British press coverage:

  • academy, n. Brit. an inner-city school which is funded partly by the government and partly by a private individual or organization.
  • biosignature, n. another term for biomarker. naturally occurring molecule, gene, or characteristic by which a particular medical condition, disease, etc. can be identified.
  • body-con, adj. denoting a style of clothing characterized by very tight-fitting garments. — origin shortening of body-conscious.
  • bootstrap, v. start up (an Internet-based business or other enterprise) with minimal financial resources.
  • boiler room, n. a room or office in which many operators engage in high-pressure telephone sales, especially of risky or worthless investments.
  • botnet, n. a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners' knowledge, e.g. to send spam messages.
  • bragging rights, pl. n. a temporary position of ascendancy in a closely contested rivalry.
  • busted flush, n. (in poker) a hand containing four cards of the same suit and one of a different suit. informal a promising person or thing that turns out to be unsuccessful.
  • car crash, n. informal a chaotic or disastrous event or situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for onlookers or observers.
  • cc (also c.c.), v. send a copy of an email to (a third party).
  • channel, v. emulate or seem to be inspired by.
  • cosplay, n. the practice of dressing up as a character from a film, book, etc., especially one from the Japanese genres of manga or anime. — origin 1990s: blend of costume + play.
  • crunch, n. a severe shortage of money or credit.
  • custard cream, n. Brit. a biscuit with a vanilla-flavoured cream filling.
  • demob-happy, adj. feeling elated because one is about to leave a stressful or responsible job or situation.
  • drookit, adj. Scottish extremely wet; drenched.
  • fascinator, n. a light, decorative woman's headpiece consisting typically of feathers, flowers, beads, etc. attached to a comb or hairclip.
  • fit for purpose, adj. (of an institution, facility, etc.) well equipped or well suited for its designated role or purpose.
  • go-bag, n. chiefly N. Amer. a bag packed with essential items, kept ready for use in the event of an emergency evacuation of one's home.
  • goji berry, n. a bright red edible berry widely cultivated in China, supposed to contain high levels of certain vitamins; either of two shrubs (Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense) on which goji berries grow.
  • gorilla, n. [with modifier] a dominant contender within a particular sphere of operation or activity.
  • leetspeak, n. an informal language or code used in Internet chatrooms, email, etc., in which numerals or special characters are used to represent standard letters. — origin from leet, representing a pronunc. of elite, and -speak.
  • locavore (also localvore), n. N. Amer. a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.
  • lookbook, n. a set of photographs displaying a fashion designer's new collection, assembled for marketing purposes.
  • microgreens, pl. n. the shoots of salad vegetables such as rocket, celery, beetroot, etc., picked just after the first leaves have developed.
  • mocktail, n. chiefly N. Amer. a non-alcoholic drink consisting of a mixture of fruit juices or other soft drinks. — origin 1930s: blend of mock + cocktail.
  • muffin top, n. informal a roll of fat visible above the top of a pair of women's tight-fitting low-waisted trousers.
  • NEET, n. Brit. a young person who is not in education, employment, or training. — origin acronym.
  • non dom, n. Brit. a person who lives in a country but is not legally domiciled in it, thereby sometimes obtaining tax advantages in the country concerned.
  • on-trend, adj. very fashionable.
  • plus-one, n. informal a person's guest at a social function.
  • poke, v. (on the social networking site Facebook) attract the attention of (another member of the site) by using the 'poke' facility.
  • pump and dump, n. the fraudulent practice of encouraging investors to buy shares in a company in order to inflate the price artificially, and then selling one's own shares while the price is high.
  • relatable, adj. enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something; able to be related to something else.
  • sleb, n. informal a celebrity. — origin 1990s: representing a colloq. pronunc.of celeb.
  • sub-prime, adj. referring to credit or loan arrangements for borrowers with a poor credit history, typically having unfavourable conditions such as high interest rates.
  • train wreck, n. informal a chaotic or disastrous situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for onlookers or observers.
  • vanity sizing, n. the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is really the case, in order to encourage sales.

There's a surprising lack of overlap between these two lists, with only subprime (hyphenated by the Concise OED) appearing on both. In part that's because the American dictionary focuses on American terms and the British dictionary on British terms. But another reason is that Merriam-Webster is a bit more conservative in the pace at which it adds entries, so many of its "new" words have already been included in the Concise OED and other Oxford dictionaries. (Full disclosure: before coming to the Visual Thesaurus, I worked on Oxford's American dictionaries. On the other hand, my early love of dictionaries was stoked by paging through Merriam-Webster's massive New International Dictionary.)

What words do you think the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster and Oxford should include in their next round of revisions?

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Ben Zimmer 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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