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.

6 Tasty Bits of Waffle House Kitchen Slang

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iStock

While Waffle House is a 24-hour diner, their servers don’t use typical diner slang to communicate orders to the kitchen. The restaurant chain uses its own lingo to employ what they call the “Pull-Drop-Mark” system to take orders in all of its 2100-plus locations throughout 25 states.

“The Pull-Drop-Mark system is what our associates use to ensure our guests get their meal quickly," Pat Warner, Waffle House's director of public relations and external affairs, tells Mental Floss. "It consists of the call-in where the server calls in the order using this system. Since we opened in 1955 we’ve used a call-in system for our team. It has evolved over the years as we’ve expanded the menu, however even today’s system can be traced back to the first restaurant.”

Here are some delicious terms you might hear during your next Waffle House visit.

1. The Mark

At every Waffle House, there is a small red tile surrounded by gray tiles on the floor near the open kitchen and grill. This is called “The Mark,” and it’s where every server or sales associate stands when he or she is calling in an order for the grill operator. Servers are only allowed to call in orders from The Mark to make sure only one order is being called at a time.

The Waffle House has used the call-in system since the chain was founded nearly 65 years ago. It’s the best way to get orders filled quickly and served to customers within the company’s eight-minutes-or-less mandate.

2. Pull

The “Pull” refers to all the meats for an order that the grill operator should pull from the refrigerator, be it bacon, sausage, chicken, sirloin—or all of the above. The meats for an order are pulled first because they require the longest amount of cooking time. After declaring "Pull," the server then calls the amount for the order, based on the standard serving size for each dish.

For example, if a server asks for “Pull one bacon” that means three slices of bacon, which is the standard amount. If a customer wants six slices, the associate would say “Pull two bacon.”

3. Drop

The “Drop” refers to any hash browns being included with an order. A sales associate might say “Drop four,” which means the kitchen should drop four hash brown orders on the grill. After a server calls the amount for the drop, then they may indicate the style, “scattered” or “in a ring.”

If a customer wants their hash browns “scattered” that means they want them broken up and spread out while cooking; if they want it cooked together and compact, the server would call “in a ring.” If a server doesn’t call “scattered” or “in a ring,” the default style is always “scattered.” So if a sales associate calls in, “Drop four, three in a ring,” that means four hash browns, one scattered, and three in a ring.

4. The Plate

Actor Chris Rock (2nd from left) stops by the Waffle House after the VIP screening of Paramount Pictures' 'Top Five' and meets customers Donnell Woods, Daryl T. Johnson II and Semhar Haile on December 9, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia
Chris Rock makes some new friends at the Waffle House in Atlanta, Georgia
Rick Diamond, Getty Images for Allied

When calling in an order of hash browns, the server must give a minimum of two pieces of information: “The Drop” and “The Plate.” The “Drop” is for the amount of hash browns to cook on the grill, while the “Plate” refers to the order that gets those hash browns.

For example, if a customer orders two scrambled eggs with hash browns, the server would call in, “Mark order scrambled plate.” If a customer wants grits instead, the call-in would be, “Mark order scrambled.” All breakfast orders default to grits, so there’s no need to say grits. If a customer wants to skip both the grits and hash browns, then the call-in is, “Mark order scrambled, hold the grits.” (Though why would they want to do that?)

“It’s two different labels for the hash browns,” Warner says. “The ‘Pull’ alerts the cook (or as we call them grill operator) how many hash browns to drop on the grill to get them cooking. The ‘Plate’ refers to any order that has hash browns. Say you get a quarter cheeseburger with hash browns—that’s a 'quarter cheese plate,' so we know the hash browns go on the same plate as the cheeseburger.”

5. Deluxe

Waffle House sales associates call burger orders “quarter” because it’s exactly a quarter pound of beef, or four ounces. If a customer wants lettuce, tomato, and onions with their burger, then the order call-in is “Deluxe.” So if the call-in is “quarter cheese deluxe,” that means a customer ordered a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onions.

6. All The Way

Although Waffle House was founded in 1955, it wasn't until the early 1980s that the franchise started to offer toppings on their iconic hash browns. It started when restaurant owners noticed grill operators adding something extra, like gravy and jalapeños, to the hash brown they made for family and friends. It wasn't long before customers began requesting the same toppings for their potatoes, so Waffle House obliged and officially added a range of toppings to the menu in 1984.

Of course, being Waffle House, there was a special spin to these toppings and the call-in lingo for servers and grill operators. Customers can order their hash browns scattered and smothered (with sautéed onions), covered (with melted cheese), chunked (with grilled hickory smoked ham), diced (with grilled tomatoes), peppered (with spicy jalapeño peppers), capped (with grilled button mushrooms), topped (with Bert’s Chili), or country (with sausage gravy). If you're really hungry, or really brave, you can also go “all the way,” which means you'll get all eight toppings served on scattered hash browns.

7 Common Words With Little-Known Relatives

iStock.com/deepblue4you
iStock.com/deepblue4you

When some words hit the big time, they left clunky related terms behind. You can make amends by sprinkling these little-known relatives into conversation, but don't be surprised if you have to provide a definition.

1. Exhaust/inhaust

While exhaust, from the Latin for "draw out of," was first attested around 1540 and went on to a great career in the English vocabulary, inhaust, with the meaning "draw into," was attested in 1547 (something about a "flye inhausted into a mannes throte sodenly") but soon became obsolete.

2. Omniscient/nescient

You know about omniscient, which comes from the Latin for "all knowing," but did you know there was a counterpart meaning "not knowing"? You can now consider yourself more-scient!

3. Resuscitate/exsuscitate

Exsuscitate was around in the 1500s, as was resuscitate, but where resuscitate was for the act of bringing someone back from the dead, exsuscitate was for the less impressive act of rousing or waking someone up from sleep. It didn't stick, and it doesn't look likely to be resuscitated.

4. Preliminary/postliminary

Postliminary has a technical use in international law, where it refers to the "right of postliminy" (stuff taken in war gets returned), but it's also been used sporadically since the early 19th century as the opposite of preliminary.

5. Incantation/excantation

If your incantation turns out to be a magic spell that somehow gets you in a jam, it might be good to be able to perform an excantation to get yourself out of it. Too bad the word, attested in 1580, is now obsolete.

6. Incrimination/concrimination

It wouldn't be fun to be the subject of an incrimination, but it might be a little more fun to be part of a concrimination with your friends, meaning "a joint accusation." The word shows up in a 1656 dictionary, but we have no evidence that anyone ever used it.

7. Inaugurate/exaugurate

Back in 1600 the word inaugurate was used to describe a ceremonial act of consecration or induction into office, but there was also the word exaugurate meaning, according to the OED, "To cancel the inauguration of; to unhallow, make profane."

A version of this piece first ran in 2013.

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