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."