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.

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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