New words expand the lexicon

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2012 - 3:32 PM

The Internet gives editors a chance to come to terms with newfangled terms.

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"Sexting" is one of the 15 new additions in the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Photo: Richard Drew, Associated Press

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Like everything else, our language is changing faster than ever. How can dictionaries possibly keep up? Easy. In the same realm that produces so many of the emerging locutions: the Internet.

Over the past few months, editors at Merriam-Webster and Oxford have released addenda to their online dictionaries, including not only recently coined expressions (sexting, bucket list, vajazzle) but also novel uses for old words (underwater, ripped, toxic).

These days, the lexicon has to be shovel-ready (another new addition) for emerging words and phrases, said Oxford's U.S. editor, Katherine Martin.

"There is a new challenge and opportunity for lexicographers in that [people] write so much more than we used to," Martin said. "Following someone on Twitter, I might see a word at the moment of its coinage. So we have this great opportunity to provide people with information on more than we used to. But we also have a great responsibility to not put something out there before it has a settled meaning."

That keeps Martin's Oxford team, and editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski's coterie over at Merriam-Webster, seriously busy tracking and discussing words. Widespread usage is generally the key, and editors are the gatekeepers.

"If it's idiosyncratic, one person using a word often, that's not enough," Sokolowski said. "There have to be many [publication] editors who determine that their readership knows this word. That's really the gold standard. Once a word is used without any linguistic white gloves, it becomes sort of a naturalized citizen of the English language."

That requires a balance between being relevant and prudent. Martin said thousands of words are under consideration at any given time. Sokolowski called the process "inherently conservative" but added that his cohorts must know when to pounce.

"When people say 'isn't that going to be fleeting?,' we say 'What about astronaut or tweet?,'" he said. "We got blog, AIDS and SARS in there quickly. [Just-added] craft beer and life coach, we traced to 1986 so we've been watching them for a long time."

Actually, some of Merriam-Webster's add-ons go back much further: aha moment to 1939, mash-up to 1859 and earworm to 1802.

Earworm -- "song or melody that keeps repeating in one's mind" -- was added as a secondary definition, after the original "corn earworm."

That's the standard for the print editions of Merriam-Webster and Oxford's British dictionaries, but the Oxford American tome ranks them by most popular usages. Which means that computer terms such as file and desktop might enter the dictionary in a higher spot than their original definitions.

But even when the books are updated every few years, older words and meanings might hold sway. "If people are reading a book from 1950," Martin said, "you want them to be able to find the meaning of that word. People still read Shakespeare."

But without the infinite space of the Web, tough decisions have to be made for the print editions, which tend to grow only a little, if at all. That means we'll have to wait to find out if one of Oxford's recent additions, an abbreviated version for what is arguably Minnesota's favorite summer food, makes the big book.

Yes, "brat" is now in the august Oxford's dictionary. You can look it up.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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