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.

40 Dandy D-Words To Deepen Your Vocabulary

iStock/gazanfer gungor
iStock/gazanfer gungor

It’s thought that the earliest ancestor of our humble letter D was an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing a door, which is where D get its hollowed-out shape from. Over time, that hieroglyph became a Phoenician letter, dalet, which then became the Greek letter delta, and finally the Roman letter D, which arrived in England (along with most of the rest of the modern alphabet) from continental Europe more than 1500 years ago.

Before then, English was written using a runic writing system called futhorc, a number of the letters of which—like thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ)—survived into the Old English period before dying out later. The Old English letter eth(Ð ð), however, effectively went the other way: it was invented in Britain (or perhaps Ireland) after the introduction of the Latin alphabet to England, and is actually a derivative of the Roman letter D. Although it too eventually fell out of use, it still survives in modern-day Icelandic.

Nowadays, D is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, accounting for just over 4 percent of a standard page of English text (or one out of every 25 letters), and roughly 2.5 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 delicious D words listed here…

1. DAB-DUMP

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pool of water left on the beach after the tide retreats.

2. DABERLICK

Daberlick or dabberlack is an old dialect name for long, straggly seaweed. Figuratively, it can be used as a nickname for greasy, lank hair, or for a tall, gangly person.

3. DABSTER

An astute or especially skilled worker.

4. DAFFLED

If you’re daffled, then you’re bewildered or disorientated by a sensory overload.

5. DANDIE-CLAW

A dandie-claw is an easily completed task or, when used in the phrase, “to give it the dandie-claw,” it essentially means “that won’t last long,” or “that won’t take long to finish off.” No one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, but it’s possible that a dandy or dandie-claw was originally a small brush used to groom horses, which at some point in time might have become synonymous with a brief or undemanding chore.

6. DANDLE

To bounce a baby on your knee is to dandle it.

7. DANG-SWANG

To do something dang-swang is to do it vigorously, or with great energy or enthusiasm.

8. DANGLEMENT

An 18th century word either for a finger, or for a dangling decoration, or trim on a garment. A danglet—literally a “little dangle”—is an icicle.

9. DAPPERPYE

An old adjective meaning “variegated” or “multi-colored.”

10. DAPPERWIT

A quick-witted, lively young man.

11. DARING-HARDY

A Shakespearean invention meaning “recklessly bold,” or “foolhardy.”

12. DAWK

A thick fog or mist.

13. DAYLIGAUN

An old Scots word for twilight, dayligaun literally means “daylight-going.”

14. DEAD-HORSE

As a metaphor for something that has ceased to be useful, the term dead horse is today more often than not used in the phrase “flogging a dead horse,” meaning “to fruitlessly continue with something all interest has been lost in.” Before then, however, dead-horse was a 17th-century term for work for which you’d been paid in full in advance—and so to work the dead-horse or for a dead horse meant “to busy yourself in work that at the end of which you won’t be paid.” A dead-man, incidentally, is an old English nickname for an empty liquor bottle, so being down among the dead-men meant “passed out drunk on the floor” in 18th-century English.

15. DEAD-NIP

18th-century slang for a failed idea.

16. DEAMBULATE

To walk about, or to stray away from home.

17. DECIDOPHOBIA

If you’re decidophobic, then you hate making decisions. Other D phobias include dendrophobia (trees), dromophobia (running, or crossing roads), didaskaleinophobia (school), dipsophobia (alcohol), and doraphobia (animal furs).

18. DEDOLEATE

A 17th-century word meaning “to cease to be unhappy.”

19. DEJERATE

To swear a solemn oath. Someone who does precisely that is a dejerator.

20. DEONERATE

To unpack cargo or to remove someone’s burden is to deonerate them. To depauperate them is to impoverish them, while to depulse them would be to drive them off.

21. DEPECULATE

Peculation is an old 17th-century legal term for embezzlement—in particular, the embezzlement of funds belonging to a country or head of state. To peculate or depeculate, ultimately, is an old-fashioned word meaning “to steal by peculation,” which was typically used to refer to public officials pilfering state funds for their own personal use.

22. DEPEDITATE

In medical terminology, a depeditation is the amputation of a foot. Thankfully, the relative verb depeditate can simply be used to mean “to be deprived of the use of your feet”—worth remembering next time you go deambulating in a new pair of shoes.

23. DEPROELIATION

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to engage violently in war,” deproeliation is just a 17th-century word for a battle.

24. DIABLERIE

The perfect word for Dr. Faustus: diablerie is work or business done with, or for, the Devil. Figuratively, it can mean recklessness or audaciousness, or else any underhand, shady dealing.

25. DIABLOTIN

Borrowed into English from French in the 1800s, a diablotin is a tiny devil or imp. It’s also, because of its unusual appearance, a nickname for the oilbird.

26. DIAL-PLATE

An 18th century nickname for a person’s face (derived from the dial or “face” of a clock).

27. DILLYALL

An old English dialect word for anything owned because it looks nice, not because it’s useful or functional.

28. DILORICATE

To diloricate something is to rip or tear it. It derives from a Latin word, lorica, for a Roman soldier’s leather cuirass or breastplate—and so might originally have referred to injuries suffered in battle that were bad enough to puncture armor.

29. DIMBER

Dimber was a 17th-century word meaning “pretty” or “smart,” while a dimber-damber was the leader or “face” of a gang of rogues or vagabonds.

30. DISCALCEATE

To discalceate is to remove your shoes. Worth remembering once you’ve deambulated and depeditated.

31. DO-NO-BETTER

The slightly less complimentary Edwardian equivalent of bae—a do-no-better or do-nae-better was “a sweetheart whom one has to be content with, for want of a better.”

32. DOATY

When your head nods up and down while you’re trying to stay awake? That’s doatying.

33. DOCH-AN-DORRIS

A doch-an-dorris or deochandorus is a “stirrup-cup”—a drink or toast made with, or in honor of, someone about to leave. It derives from an old 17th-century Scots Gaelic phrase, deoch an doruis, that literally means “door-drink.”

34. DOCK-WALLOPER

Originally a nickname for someone who hangs around dockyards looking for work, dock-walloper is an old 19th-century American slang word for a loafer or idler.

35. DOLLYMAWKIN

A frivolous, scatterbrained young woman.

36. DOODLE-SHOP

An old dialect nickname for a sweetshop.

37. DRAGGLETAIL

In 18th-century English, an untidily or slatternly dressed woman. Literally, a woman who has let the tails of her dress drag through the rain or mud.

38. DULCILOQUY

A soft or sweet manner of speaking. Likewise, if you’re dulciloquent, then you have a pleasant voice.

39. DUTCH CONCERT

The incomprehensibleness of Dutch to speakers of English is the origin of double Dutch, meaning “gibberish” or “nonsense,” and Dutch concert, an old nickname for an incongruous or cacophonous mishmash of noises or sounds.

40. DWINE

To dwindle or pine away.

This article originally ran in 2016.

To Apostrophe or Not to Apostrophe: How to Pluralize Your Last Name

iStock.com/katerinasergeevna
iStock.com/katerinasergeevna

Let's suppose your last name is Jones, and you and your family want to send out holiday greeting cards or wedding invitations. How would you make your last name plural—Jones'? Jones's? Or Joneses?

Although it may seem complicated at first, the rules of pluralizing last names are actually pretty simple, as Slate has pointed out. Unless you want to make your last name possessive, there aren't any circumstances where you would need to add an apostrophe.

The rule goes like this: If your name ends in s, x, z, ch, or sh, add -es to the end. Walsh becomes Walshes, and Malkovich becomes Malkoviches. For all other endings, simply add -s to the end (as in Smiths, Whites, Johnsons, etc).

Of course, things get a little trickier when you want to make a last name plural and possessive. "Errors involving plural proper names are so common that I almost never see them written correctly," June Casagrande writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Let's say you want to notify friends and family that a party will be held at the Jones household. You could take the easy way out and write just that, or you could opt for, "The party will be held at the Joneses' house." Simply tack an apostrophe onto the end of a plural name to make it possessive. Plural first, then possessive.

The LA Times provided a few other examples of plural possessives:

"Unlike singular possessives, which take an apostrophe followed by an S, plural possessives take an apostrophe alone. So if you're going to the home of the Smiths, you're going to the Smiths' house. If you're going to visit the Williamses, that would be at the Williamses' house. Mr. and Mrs. Mendez, known collectively as the Mendezes, live in the Mendezes' house. And Mr. and Mrs. Berry, whom we call the Berrys, live in the Berrys' house."

On the other hand, if Mr. Jones lived alone and was having a party at his place, you would write "Mr. Jones' house" or "Mr. Jones's house." Both are acceptable—it's merely a difference of style and personal preference. Names that end in s are the exception to the singular possessive rule, though. You'd normally just add 's to make a singular name possessive, such as Mr. Berry's house or Mrs. Mendez's house.

Now that you know exactly when and where to add an apostrophe, your holiday greetings will not only be jolly but also grammatically correct.

[h/t Slate]

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