How To: Get A New Word In the Dictionary
GOOD NEWS: It's Possible
New words pop up in the dictionary all the time, thanks to a handy—and almost maniacally extensive—editorial system. If you want your word to make into the big books, you'll need to get it past the gate-keepers.
Step 1: Invent a Word and, More Importantly, Get It In Print
Over at the Oxford English Dictionary, the life of a new word starts out in the Reading Program department, where about 50 people spend their 9 to 5 lives gobbling up all the printed material they can get their hands on: Novels, television transcripts, song lyrics, newspapers, magazines"¦anything. They're on the lookout for new words (or innovative uses of old, mundane words). New discoveries are forwarded to a searchable electronic database of quotes, which Oxford calls "Incomings."
Step 2: Butter Up Your Editor
In our experience, this is pretty much "Step 2" in any creative undertaking. And it's no different in the world of words. Each new word under consideration is assigned to a specific editor, who then begins tracking its use and popularity in the long-term. How long term? Try 5 years. The rule of thumb at Oxford is that a word can't be included in the dictionary until it's appeared five times, in five different sources, over a period of 5 years. And we don't know for certain, but if we were word editors, we'd be a lot more likely to notice that all-important fifth usage if there was a bottle of 12-year-old Scotch left on our desk. Just sayin'.
Step 3: Stay Popular Or Perish
Yes, the dictionary is just like junior high. Dictionaries are meant to record English as a living language, not a museum showpiece. So when a word falls out of use, it can kiss its spot on the all-dictionary cheerleading squad good-bye. In 2003, the good folks at Merriam Webster opened the doors for 10,000 up-and-coming new words and usages, including: "phat," "Frankenfood," and "cheesed off." (This should give you hope for your favorite word. Whatever it is, it's gotta be better than "cheesed off.") But, that same year, several hundred words—each one once as popular, in its own way, as "phat"—got the axe. Among them, "snollygoster," which once (back when your Grandma had all her teeth) referred to an unscrupulous politician, and "Vitamin G," which hasn't technically disappeared but is now called "riboflavin."