12 Things You Might Not Know About Dictionaries

StanRohrer, iStock
StanRohrer, iStock

At first glance, the dictionary seems pretty straightforward. Words are listed alphabetically, and you simply locate the right page and scan until you find the word you’re looking for. But there’s a lot you might not know about the dictionary, such as how new words are added and why Noah Webster learned Sanskrit to write his dictionary. So without further ado, read on to discover a dozen things you might not know about various dictionaries.

1. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO ADD A NEW WORD.

very old dictionary cover
Housing Works Thrift Shops, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When people use a word or phrase frequently enough that it appears in widely read print and online publications, lexicographers take notice. First, they collect citations of the word, documenting the source it appeared in and recording its contextual meaning. Then, lexicographers conduct database research, searching for evidence that people from diverse backgrounds have used the word over a period of time. Finally, dictionary editors review the evidence and decide whether or not to include the new word in an upcoming edition of the dictionary. Thanks to this lengthy process, you can now find modern words such as manspread, presstitute, and athleisure in several dictionaries.

2. THE FIRST ENGLISH DICTIONARIES ONLY INCLUDED DIFFICULT WORDS.

Dictionary page with the word 'neanderthaloid.'
Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

We think of dictionaries as comprehensive tomes containing everything from antelope and apple to zeitgeist and zootrophy, but early English dictionaries didn't contain any simple, common words. In the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks in part to the Renaissance's classical influence, English doubled its vocabulary by incorporating words from other languages. People needed to consult word lists to look up these new, difficult words that they hadn't heard before. In 1604, a teacher named Robert Cawdrey compiled a list of words into A Table Alphabeticall, which defined difficult English words borrowed from Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew. Throughout the 17th century, other English men published lists of hard words with easy to understand definitions, and people turned to the dictionary to learn these words.

3. NOAH WEBSTER LEARNED 26 LANGUAGES TO WRITE HIS DICTIONARY.

Handwritten drafts of dictionary entries by Noah Webster, circa 1790-1800.
Handwritten drafts of dictionary entries by Noah Webster, circa 1790-1800.
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although Noah Webster wasn't the first American to produce a dictionary, his name has become synonymous with the American dictionary. Hoping to help create a uniquely American lexicon, with Americanized spelling and pronunciation of words, Webster wrote An American Dictionary of the English Language. To thoroughly research word origins and sources, Webster got serious about becoming an etymology expert. He learned 26 languages, including Sanskrit and Old English, to write his dictionary. Published in 1828, it contained 70,000 entries and included the first definitions of "American" words such as chowder and skunk.

4. THE FIRST MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY COST SIX DOLLARS.

Tattered page of an old dictionary.
GCShutter, iStock

After Webster died in 1843, George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to revise Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged. The two brothers printed and sold books in Springfield, Massachusetts, and their intellectual property purchase paid off. In the fall of 1847, the Merriams issued the first revised Webster dictionary for six dollars. The book sold well, and the G. & C. Merriam Co. was eventually renamed Merriam-Webster, Inc. in 1982. Merriam-Webster continues to publish popular print and electronic dictionaries today.

5. IT TOOK ALMOST 50 YEARS TO CREATE THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY.

Picture of a dinosaur in the dictionary.
huppypie, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1857, the Philological Society of London first called for a comprehensive English language dictionary, including words from the 12th century to the present. In 1879, the Philological Society joined forces with Oxford University Press, and work commenced. In 1884, Oxford University Press published the first part of the dictionary (A to Ant), and the final volume was published in 1928. Called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the dictionary listed more than 400,000 words and phrases. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the most respected and widely used dictionaries.

6. J.R.R. TOLKIEN RESEARCHED WORD ETYMOLOGIES FOR THE OED.

Phrase by JRR Tolkien
Corey Taratuta, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

After serving in World War I, J.R.R. Tolkien worked as an editor's assistant on the OED. His job was to research the etymologies of certain words that started with the letter w. Tolkien also composed multiple drafts of definitions for words such as waggle, walnut, walrus, and waistcoat. After his time at the OED, Tolkien went on to work as an English professor and write The Lord of the Rings. Subsequently, the OED has added terms that Tolkien himself coined, such as hobbit, mithril, and mathom.

7. SOMETIMES FAKE WORDS MAKE THEIR WAY INTO THE DICTIONARY.

Magnifying glass looking at a dictionary.
Alessio_slo, iStock

Due to human error, a handful of fake words have appeared in dictionaries over the centuries. Some words, like phantomnation, which appeared in an 1864 edition of Webster's, are the result of missing hyphens. Others are typographical errors. A 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary defined dord as density, the result of confusion over spacing. Some dictionary editors have even intentionally included fake words, such as esquivalience in The New Oxford American Dictionary, to protect their copyright.

8. THE OED NEEDS YOUR HELP.

Copies of the Oxford English Dictionary
mrpolyonymousvia, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although many scholars consider the OED to be the definitive authority on dictionaries, the OED needs your help. At any given time, the dictionary's editors are researching the history of certain words and phrases, and The OED Appeals allows the public to submit evidence (via the comments section) of the earliest record of certain words. Camouflage and Arnold Palmer are two entries that the OED has recently researched, so if you have old books or magazines that mention some weird word, let the OED know. You might just see your contribution in the dictionary's next edition.

9. SAMPLE SENTENCES FROM DICTIONARIES CAN MAKE INTERESTING SHORT STORIES.

A pair of reading glasses on a dictionary.
frankieleon, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

You might think that all those sample sentences in the dictionary are random, but you'd only be partially right. The phrases are deliberately chosen to show the word in a clear context with other words that it's often associated with, and are ideally so boring that you don't even think twice about them. Illustrator Jez Burrows has connected these random sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary into short stories. "Often I’ll find at least one [word] that makes a good jumping-off point and I’ll start to flesh out some sort of vague narrative, then work backwards to imagine what sort of words might give rise to the sentences I'm looking for," Burrows said of his process.

10. A LOT OF WEIRD DICTIONARIES EXIST.

row of dictionaries
Liz West, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although most people are familiar with Webster, the OED, and Dictionary.com, there are plenty of obscure or downright bizarre dictionaries. For example, you can find plenty of rhyming dictionaries and reverse dictionaries (that are organized by a theme rather than alphabetized). Scrolling through Wye's Dictionary Of Improbable Words: All-Vowel Words And All-Consonant Words might help you find some uncommon words to win your next Scrabble game. And Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words contains weird English words that have appeared in at least one dictionary in the past. For example, you might learn that junkettaceous means worthless and cuggermugger means whispered gossiping.

11. URBAN DICTIONARY CAPITALIZES OFF OF BEING A SLANG HAVEN.

Entry in the Urban Dictionary
Terry Freedman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary, the online, crowdsourced listing of millions of slang words and phrases, is beloved by middle schoolers and anyone trying to understand the latest slang terms. But Urban Dictionary is more than a dictionary. It also has an online store that sells mugs, T-shirts, an official card game, and plush dolls inspired by dirty phrases that the dictionary has helped to popularize (like Golden Shower and Donkey Punch). If you're unfamiliar with the definitions of those disgusting phrases, we'll let you look them up, but don’t say we didn't warn you.

12. A CALIFORNIA SCHOOL DISTRICT CONSIDERED BANNING MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY.

mrd00dman, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2010, a school district in Southern California temporarily removed all copies of the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate Edition from elementary school classrooms. Why remove the dictionary? After a parent told the principal of Oak Meadows Elementary School that the dictionary contained an explicit definition of a sex act, the school district decided to remove the books. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents decided that the dictionary was age-appropriate, and the copies of Merriam-Webster were returned to the classroom. Here's hoping that parent never discovers Urban Dictionary!

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

Dad Joke, Tallboy, and 531 More Words Are Now in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary

vasina/iStock via Getty Images
vasina/iStock via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Merriam-Webster announced that it had updated its online dictionary to recognize they as a singular nonbinary pronoun. While that may have been the most buzzworthy term on the list, it wasn’t the only one—Merriam-Webster also added 532 other words and definitions from the worlds of sports, business, psychology, pop culture, and more.

Certified pun masters, lovers of all things corny, and actual dads can rejoice: Dad joke is among the hundreds of new terms. Though it might seem like people have been tossing the term around for some years now, there was more to the addition process than just proving that dad joke is common. Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski explained to The Mercury News that editors sift through print and online publications to find evidence of a term’s widespread popularity and staying power. Once the editors could confirm that dad joke was all over the place and wasn’t just being used to describe “a joke told by a dad,” it was time to give it a formal definition: “a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.”

Also added were free solo, describing a rock climb undertaken without any rope or safety equipment, stinger—those short movie scenes during or after the credits—and coulrophobia, an “abnormal fear of clowns,” though anybody who’s ever seen a clown might argue that clown fear is completely normal.

Sokolowski’s favorite new word is non-rhotic, which describes the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel. “It expresses how the dictionary works,” he told The Mercury News. “The term has been around for 50 years but it’s been mostly used by scholars and linguists. But because of social media, the curtain is being pulled back and it’s being used more by the general public. As a language guy, I think that’s just fantastic!”

Merriam-Webster has also added a number of new abbreviations and “senses,” or definitions, to existing dictionary entries. Likely brought about by their ubiquitous presence among Instagram hashtags, inspo and vacay are now officially acceptable abbreviations for inspiration and vacation, respectively. And financiers will be happy to hear that haircut now has a new sense meaning “a reduction in the value of an asset” (even though a good haircut can really make you feel like a million bucks). Tallboy or tall boy has also now been accepted to mean “a tall cylindrical can for beverages (such as beer) usually measuring 16 fluid ounces.”

Industry jargon, social media, and pop culture are all common sources of lexical innovation, and authors have contributed quite a few new terms over the years, too. Try your hand at matching words to their authors-slash-inventors in this quiz.

[h/t The Mercury News]

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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