It’s true: all words were made up at some point. But could you really invent your own words and make them an official part of the English language? (Spoiler: yes.)
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I know what you’re thinking: Hey Jonathan, aren’t all words made up? The answer is yes! So how does a series of noises become, well, a word? The answer’s pretty simple: it get used.
It’s true. A word becomes “legitimate”, or a “real word” when it becomes an accepted part of the spoken and printed language. Different dictionaries have various methods of selecting these words for inclusion in their newer editions, but they’re all essentially looking for the same thing.
Take the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) for example. Since around 1857, this Dictionary has used a Reading Program to find appropriate quotations for each word in the dictionary. In the department, about 50 lexicographers read almost every possible printed medium. We’re not just talking novels or newspapers here; they’ll also read TV transcripts, song lyrics, magazines and stuff like that.
When they’re reading, they’re on the lookout for new words. Each time they discover something new, they send it to a database. From there, each potential new entry is given to an editor. This editor tracks the word’s long-term use and popularity. For Oxford, the rule of thumb is that a word can only appear in the dictionary once it’s met what I’ll call the Triple 5 Rule: It’s been in print five times, in five different sources, over a period of 5 years.
Oxford also searches for new words using what they call the Oxford English Corpus, a massive collection of published material from across the internet. This corpus contains almost 2.5 billion words of 21st century English, and they’re adding to it all the time.
While the specifics of this selection process might vary, other dictionaries do the same thing. The editors at Merriam-Webster spend a couple of hours each day reading all the published material they can get their hands on, and noting new or interesting changes in language, including new words.
While thousands of new words and uses might make it into a dictionary each year, some dictionaries also remove words. These are words that may have been popular in decades, or even centuries ago, that may as well not exist today. And, after a time, editors will cut these terms from the book. For example, Merriam Webster has cut sternforemost, hodad, snollygoster, stylopodium and more.
While it might sound cruel to throw these words out, we have to remember that dictionaries map English as a living language, so as English changes, so do its dictionaries.