How Words Make It Into “The Dictionary”

A question that I get asked with some frequency is I’ve invented a new word. How do I go about getting it in "the dictionary"?

The questioner wants to get credit and fame for coining a term. Almost invariably, I have to disappoint them; their word usually has little chance of ever making it into a dictionary.

So how does a word get into the dictionary? The simple answer is that the editors of a particular dictionary must deem it worthy of inclusion. There is no organization that officially admits words into the English language. Our language is a very democratic one and we admit any word that people actually use. But whether or not a word makes it into a dictionary is another question and the lexicographers of each dictionary are the gatekeepers for entry into that work.

So what are the criteria that lexicographers use to determine if a word is "worthy" of inclusion in their dictionary? The criteria vary from dictionary to dictionary, but generally are something like the following:

Is the term used by a number of different people? If the term is in widespread use, it will probably be included. Words that are rarely used are less likely to be included. Exceptions might be made for rarely used words that appear in significant works of literature.

Has the term been used for an extended period of time? Many (perhaps most) words are invented and then die a quick death. Dictionaries are less likely to include newly coined words because chances are they will be gone by the time the dictionary is actually published. Lexicographers will wait a few years to see if the word is still around when the next edition is being prepared.

Does the term appear in significant works of literature? If the word is used by a famous writer, it is more likely to be included. There are many examples of words appearing in the dictionary that haven’t been used by anyone except a single, famous writer. This isn’t snobbery, but rather practicality. If it is used by a famous writer, there are bound to be people read the work in question and look up the word to see what it means.

Is the term relevant to the dictionary’s audience? Believe it or not, dictionaries are usually aimed at particular audiences. Desktop and, even more so, paperback dictionaries are intended for people who need to look up a term quickly. These tomes will tend to include current, commonly used words over archaic, seldom found ones. Larger dictionaries tend to include more obscure terms. Some dictionaries have a distinct literary bent. Others seek to document slang, jargon, or regional uses. American dictionaries, as one might expect, tend to focus on American usages, British on British ones, Australian dictionaries on terms from downunder, etc.

Is the term highly technical or used only by a specific subset of the population? If it is, it is less likely to be included. Unless of course, the dictionary specializes in the jargon of the group in question. Medical dictionaries, for example, include lots of terms used by doctors that do not appear in general dictionaries.

Is the term a proper name? Some dictionaries omit proper names.

Is there room to include it? Finally, lexicographers must make a judgment call on how the word ranks with other candidates for inclusion. There is never enough room to include every word, so some words don’t make the cut because they are deemed less important than others. Even online dictionaries, which are not constrained by space limitations, do have limits on time. The lexicographers simply don’t have time to research every word they come across and so they prioritize.

So can you suggest a word for inclusion? The answer for some dictionaries is yes. The best dictionaries actively seek help from the public, but only certain types of help are wanted. First, check a number of different dictionaries, including, if you have access, the Oxford English Dictionary. If the term appears in one or more, there is little point in submitting it to those that don’t include it. Lexicographers do check rival dictionaries to see what is included there. If the term is not in one dictionary, it was probably omitted because of editorial policy or the editors know about it and it will be in the next edition.

And lobbying for a word’s inclusion will not help--in fact, it will probably hurt its chances for inclusion as the editors will likely dismiss you as a crank. The best bet is to send the term to the dictionary, accompanied by verifiable citations of it actually being used, and just see what happens. The citations should cover a variety of sources and come from a period covering several years at least. Include the term, quotes from a number of sources that use the term, and enough bibliographic information for each source so that the editors can find it easily.

And what is a verifiable source? Simply put, the lexicographers are not going to take your word for it. They want to be able to see where and how the word is being used for themselves. That means the word has to be published, either in print, on the web, or in some recorded media that is accessible to researchers. What about oral sources? The trouble is that oral uses are nearly impossible to verify. You might include one or two, so long as you provide a specific date, the speaker, and the location and as long as there are other, written citations as well. Please, don’t just say "my grandmother used this all the time" or "my best friend said this thirty years ago in high school."

So where do you send this information? To contribute to the Oxford English Dictionary, consult http://www.oed.com/readers/research.html for submission criteria and contact information. Merriam-Webster maintains an Open Dictionary online that you can submit entries to. It’s at http://www3.merriam-webster.com/opendictionary/index.php. And the folks that created Wikipedia also run the Wiktionary and you can craft entries for that yourself at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Main_Page. Keep in mind that The Open Dictionary and the Wiktionary are not scholarly works, although professional lexicographers do consult them for ideas and evidence. Most of what appears in these open dictionaries is junk, but there are some nuggets of gold to be found there.

If a word is in the dictionary, does it do any good to send in a citation? Yes, if the citation is using the term in a way different than the definition given or it is used in a particular period. Lexicographers write their definitions based on how a word is used, so a new or different sense of the word can lead to a secondary definition. Also, if the word is used earlier or later than it has otherwise been known to, or during a period where the dictionary is lacking citations, then this can be helpful. Also, evidence of a regional or jargon term being used outside its normal habitat can also be helpful.

Finally, will you get credit? Well, if you submit to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary or the Wiktionary, you can see your submission on the web. But that’s about it. If you are a very active contributor to the OED, you may get a mention on the contributors list, but you won’t get public credit for a specific submission. You don’t do this kind of thing for credit, but rather for the love of language.

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