One of Languagehat’s favorite lexicographers, Erin McKean, has a delightful post at the PowellsBooks blog explaining how words get into dictionaries and what that means:

Lots of people (and by “lots” I mean roughly 99% of everyone I’ve ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who’s Who of words. That it’s like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow “realler” than the words that don’t.

Well, that’s not exactly true. It does take a bit of work to get a word into the dictionary, but inclusion in the dictionary is not an honor. The dictionary words are not more real than the words not in the dictionary. What they are is more USEFUL.

Think of the dictionary as less of a Social Register for words and more like a word general store. I am the manager of the word general store. Do I stock only words in my size? Only in the flavors I like? Only the words I wish people would use? No — I provide a wide selection of words for the use of all my customers. And because my customers are such a wide group (basically, all adult readers and writers) I have to make sure to include the words that will serve their needs.

As I said in the thread where I found the link, she has a real gift for explaining lexicography in ways that the ordinary person can understand. And she ends with some good advice:

So, if you want to get a word into the dictionary…, show me that people are using it. Lots of people, in lots of different places (not just online, not just in one narrow field of reference). Send me examples in context. Show me that it’s important, that people need to know it to live their lives…

Of course, a commenter has already asked “Can the creator of a word grease some palms to get it in?” (Slip me a few bucks, pal, and I’ll see what I can do.)


  1. She can and does communicate, wonderful.

  2. James E Coll says

    I’ve often wondered about the political nature of dictionary making and the kind of choices that are made as to inclusion and exclusion of words. I remember reading a New York Times article on an edition of the Oxford dictionary, the headline read something like ‘Text – now a verb and a noun’. The article was, of course, discussing the conflict between what is a slang word and therefore not a ‘fitting addition’ to the dictionary and what is an accepted word. Text – of course – or more formally ‘to text (someone)’ means to use your mobile phone to send a short message to somebody (or I think you can do it to a group of people now). It was interesting to hear the editors discuss their criteria for entry into the dictionary as I had presumed that their would be a certain conservatism to this process (although a conservative dictionary editor working with such a fast changing and growing language would be something of a paradox by any consideration). Their method seemed to involve a word appearing in print a certain number of times (and not a very high number at that) or being in common oral usage with a certain number of repetitions.
    But I remember having a rather bizarre experience of Victorian exclusion when I was an undergraduate student. I didn’t have a lot of money as an undergraduate and so when it came time to read Homer I picked up a cheap and tattered Victorian copy of Book Six of Homer’s Odyssey. Book Six concerns Odysseus landing on the isle of Phaeceia where he sleeps on a beach exhausted and naked, until he is woken by hearing Nausicaa and her friends playing ball nearby. Well in the ‘standard’ or ‘original’ text there is a verse that tells us –
    hôs eipôn thamnôn hupeduseto dios Odusseus,
    ek pukinês d’ hulês ptorthon klase cheiri pacheiêi
    phullôn, hôs rhusaito peri chroï mêdea phôtos.
    “So having spoken, good Odyseeus put himself under a leaf
    From a fresh branch broken off with his stout hand from the thick forest-trees
    That he might place it around his body and hide his manly parts”
    (Forgive my rather crude translation.)
    Well, in my rather faded and illustrated edition this had been replaced with a stock homeric verse (alas I don’t have the book here) telling us just how clever Odysseus was and how much he had put up with and so forth. Well, of course, this tells us a little bit about Victorian attitudes about even an untouchable like Homer discussing the ‘baser aspects’ of humans and the human body. Of course, there is a lovely irony in this, which is that in my old Victorian copy of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus stands to greet Nausicaa and her maiden attendants…. utterly naked.

  3. Vivek Khadpekar says

    Dictionaries on the whole seem to be getting more descriptive than prescriptive. The current Indian edition of COD admits “prepone” (the meaning is self-evident). At this rate we could soon be using “pone” as a stand-alone verb.
    Can anywone shed light on the expression “used to”. My impression is that it is correctly used only in assorted shades of the past tense. In some varieties of Indian spoken English one encounters it in what, for want of a more precise tag, I would call the “present customary tense”. Example: “I use to walk 5 km. every morning” (meaning: I walk 5 km. every morning). None of the dictionaries I have consulted, standard or otherwise, has anything to say on this.

  4. FYI, on an ad for The Amazing Race, they are going to be “Forging Rivers!” And not apparently creating rivers of iron, nor fraudulent copies of rivers. Although, possibly, forging their way across rivers at fords.

  5. Come Mr. DJ song pon de replay!

  6. Allan Beatty says

    “Used to” is only used in past tense in modern colloquial American English. Formerly it was also used in present tense, such as “I do not use to jest” somewhere in Shakespeare (Juliet’s father, I think). That had to be glossed for 20th century high school students.

  7. My favorite Word That Should Not Have Made It Into The Dictionary is “squarial”, a proprietary type of satellite dish in Britain that lasted about a year; the company that made it folded almost the day Oxford added it to their Concise edition. Oxford have a policy of never removing anything from the big OED; I see “squarial” is rather pathetically now marked “temporary”.

  8. Y’know, it’s funny about words. I love words, too.
    Some years back, I was working with a colleague who made a clear distinction between “composed of” and “comprising”. We looked them up and, sure enough, there was a clear distinction (the whole being composed of its parts, the parts comprising the whole).
    Through constant misuse, both words have come to take on the same meaning. Unfortunately, I still cringe when I read “comprised of”.
    It’s like the now-accepted-but-incorrect pronunciation of the word “forte” – there is no accent on the final e, and it was originally pronounced “fort”. But since so many people mispronounced it for so long, the incorrect pronunciation “for-tay” is now accepted.
    Where are the word police when you need them?
    Steven List
    Co-Founder, Back of the Room

  9. Forte is from French fort, which is pronounced /for/. There is no etymological justification for either pronunciation you cite, and usage is overwhelmingly in favor of /forte/, which is ipso facto correct. It has the added advantage of being unambiguous, whereas the other pronunciation is homophonous with the word fort.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Wiktionary: “Borrowed 1640–50; earlier fort < Middle French; disyllabic pronunciation by association with Italian forte“.

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