Be Amazing: Get a New Word in the Dictionary

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Whether you're looking to start your own religion, swallow a sword, quit smoking, find Atlantis, buy the Moon, sink a battleship, perform your own surgeries, or become a ninja, our new book Be Amazing covers all the essential life skills! This week, we'll be excerpting a few lessons from the book.

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 slip it past the gatekeepers.

Step 1: INVENT A WORD AND, MORE IMPORTANT, GET IT IN PRINT

Over at the Oxford English Dictionary, they'll tell you that the the life of a new word starts out in their Reading Programme department, where about 50 people spend their 9-to-5s 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 end up on a searchable electronic database that Oxford calls its "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 5 times, in 5 different sources, over a period of 5 years.

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 San Francisco Chronicle reported that 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 got the ax. 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."

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March 13, 2009 - 4:20am
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