Posted by: Jack Henry | May 28, 2020

Editor’s Corner: How a Word Gets in the Dictionary

Last week, I shared some word lists: a list of new words, a list of old words with new meanings, and a list of fading words. The list of new words may have got you wondering how words get included in the dictionary. Who decides? How do they decide on some words and not others?

This information, along with the lists I shared last time, comes an article called “How does a Word Become a Word?” The article points out that the first English dictionary, called The Elementaire (1582), contained about eight thousand words. In 2020, we English speakers use more than one million words; and interestingly, fewer than half of those are listed in a dictionary. But how do words get into a dictionary?

Well, some lucky (and I’m sure fascinating!) people are paid to spend their days researching English usage and then updating dictionaries based on what they find. There are numerous dictionaries—our dictionary of choice is Merriam-Webster, but there are many others. For a new word to be included in a dictionary, it must meet two specific criteria: it must “be used across a wide area by many people who agree on its meaning,” and it must have “staying power.”

Dictionary writers and editors watch word usage, and if a word meets the two criteria, they consult with colleagues to be as sure as they can that it has permanence, and if they determine that it does, they add it to the dictionary.

Not only are they always adding words, they are also evaluating existing words and removing those that have faded from use. What a job, eh? I’d like, just for a day, to have the power to remove words I don’t like from the English language. Bye bye phlegm. Bye bye impactful.

If you’re interested and you have a strong stomach, you can find quite a few lists online of English words that people hate. Phlegm is on most of the lists as are many other words that have to do with bodily fluids.

But some bodily fluids are music to our ears:

Blood, Sweat & Tears, circa 1969

BTS, released their song “Blood, Sweat, & Tears” in 2016

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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