Be Amazing: Get a New Word in the Dictionary
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."
Want to get the new book plus a new mental_floss shirt for under $20? Here are the details.