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Dictionary.com Explains How a Word Becomes “A Word”

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Whether your spellchecker likes it or not, “astroturfing” is officially a word. At least it is according to the lexicographers behind Dictionary.com, one of the Web’s most popular online (and mobile) resources for all things word-related. The same goes for “agender,” “crash blossom,” “microaggression,” and “slacktivism.”

On Wednesday, the site unveiled its latest update, which added or modified more than 1,000 words to its already enormous database of more than 1.2 million searchable terms. To learn how a word becomes “a word,” we spoke with Rebekah Otto, Dictionary.com’s Director of Content, who shared some secrets of the lexicon trade.

1. LANGUAGE IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING.

“Our team of lexicographers finds potential new terms from an array of sources: reading widely, looking at words our users are searching with no results, and scanning changes over time in our corpus of contemporary language use,” Otto explains. “We evaluate this massive list of terms against our corpus of more than 19 billion words, which is a collection of sources, from literature to news articles to television and interview transcripts, balanced to reflect actual usage of language. This list is constantly added to and culled, so it’s an ongoing process. Just because a new term or coinage is not added in an update does not mean it will not be included in the future.”

2. TECHNOLOGY IS A LANGUAGE UNTO ITSELF.

Dictionary.com’s latest update saw a trend toward technology-related terms, but Otto swears that “We do not intentionally focus on the technology industry in our updates, at the expense of other changes in the language. That said, we are more aware of changes in technology-related words because we’re based in the Bay Area and are surrounded by that culture. For example, last year, when our designers were working on mocks for our Android Wear app, they kept running across the word ‘glanceable’ in their research and suggested it to one of our lexicographers who added the word to our list to be considered. Even outside of the Bay Area, the language of our devices and how we interact with them continues to evolve, and we will always monitor those shifts.” (Case in point: the recent addition of “smartwatch.”)

3. THE CULTURE REFLECTS THE CONVERSATION.

“We aim to reflect the cultural conversation, not to drive it,” says Otto. “We have noticed our users increasingly looking for words like ‘cisgender’ (which was added last year). Just a few weeks ago, following Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer, the word ‘transsexual’ trended in our lookups. Additionally public news events like the Silk Road trial drive increased interest and awareness in terms like ‘deep web’ and ‘dark web.’”

4. THERE’S A THIN LINE BETWEEN “SLANG” AND “INFORMAL LANGUAGE.”

What's the line that delineates a phrase like “brogrammer” between being slang and an official word? “Slang is defined as ‘very informal usage.’ This typically indicates that these terms will not be found in published books or other formal, edited speech. Of course, words move from slang to more widely accepted usage in English. In these cases we might change a label from ‘Slang’ to ‘Informal’ or remove the label altogether.”

5. UPDATING AN ALREADY EXISTING WORD IS ONE OF A LEXICOGRAPHER’S HARDEST JOBS.

There’s more to Dictionary.com’s quarterly updates than the addition of new words; existing words are updated, too. And Otto admits that “this is one of the trickiest parts of updating the dictionary. It is relatively straightforward to identify and define new coinages like ‘brogrammer,’ but for new senses of existing words we have to look closely at a wide range of examples from our corpus to see how frequently and widely a new sense is being used. Some new senses—like ‘tablet’ and ‘scroll,’ which were added years ago—quickly reach a point of cultural saturation that the evidence is apparent. Typically today if someone says ‘tablet,’ they mean their iPad, Kindle Fire, or Google Nexus—not a pad of paper or a piece of stone."

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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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