Merriam-Webster reported last week that they had added 520 new words into their dictionaries for January 2021. These include hard pass, cancel culture, coworking, ASMR, hygge and Second Gentleman (note the initial capitals, as in First Lady), which is Doug Emhoff’s official title following Kamala Harris’s election as Vice President.
You may have strong feelings about these new words (I think it’s time I gave up my years-long railings against selfie) or you may think it’s about time they were properly recognised – but how do lexicographers decide when a word should be added to the dictionary?
Very simply, it’s when a word is used by many different people who all agree that it means the same thing. Dictionary editors review text from different sources and locations, in order to determine a word’s frequency, how widespread its usage is, and whether it’s being used to mean the same thing more often than not.
Sometimes circumstances drive the evolution of language at record speed. COVID-19 was included in the dictionary 34 days after it was first coined, which is the shortest time for any word from coinage to entry in the dictionary. Many new words in recent decades have been technological in nature, reflecting the huge leaps forward especially in computer technology and usage.
A peek at the new words added to dictionaries in the 1990s gives us browser, dot-com, screensaver, spam (not the canned meat) and icon (for the visual graphic feature, rather than a religious image), as well as cowabunga for those of us who were there for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first time around.
Can’t find an appropriate word? Invent one yourself – but you’ll have to get it used and repeated many, many times in order for it to achieve dictionary entry status. Famously William Gibson gave us cyberspace, while it was Norman Mailer who introduced factoid. John le Carré wasn’t the first to use mole and spook but his immensely popular books brought these words into more common usage.
Charles Dickens was pretty inventive when it came to creating the rights words for his stories, giving us chortle, butterfingers, flummox and the creeps. Shakespeare proffered laughably, dauntless and lacklustre – and some sources credit him with inventing more 2,000 new words in English, although this is hotly disputed.
I’m putting in a vote for The Simpsons as the most prolific source of new words though I admit most of them are not in common usage. I will be putting in a concerted effort to make craptacular really happen.