Have you ever opened a dictionary, stared at a word, and wondered how it got there? Who gets to pick these words? Moreover, who gets to define them? Well, we did a little bit of digging, and this is what we found out.
Lexicographers are always on the lookout.
Lexicographers are basically language researchers. They are constantly looking for new words, which they then start to assess to see if these words are fit for the dictionary. You can even invent a word and then propose that it be included in the dictionary. However, lexicographers take some factors into consideration before making that decision: How widely is the word being used? Does the word sound like it would stick around for a long time? Who coined the word? Is this person influential? Does the word fit the language? Once these queries (plus more) are answered, then congratulations! You could be a contributor to the English language. It’s now up to the editors.
Editors basically have one of the coolest jobs in the world.
Editors are in charge of creating the definitions of words that are going to be included in a dictionary. How do they do this? Simple. They read. They surf the web. They observe people. This way, they are able to track how a word is being used both in spoken and in written language. Once the research is complete, the task of the editor is to craft a definition of the word that both fits the word and can be understood by the person reading it. If an editor finds that your word is used often enough, then they’ll define it. Et voila, your word is in the dictionary!
There’s more than just one kind of dictionary.
Before you search for your word in just any dictionary, let’s get one thing straight: there isn’t just one kind of dictionary. With the evolution of language, technology, and education, there has been a need to constantly expand ways in which we consume information. The dictionary that you’re familiar with—the heavy tome with thin white paper—is the most common kind of dictionary, but it isn’t the most complete. For the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, a complete set consists of 20 volumes. A pocket dictionary may contain just a handful of words that you might need in a pinch. There are short learner’s dictionaries for children and people who are learning the English language. There are specialized dictionaries for certain fields of study. There is also an online version of the dictionary, where each word comes with an audio of the pronunciation. So don’t be disappointed when you don’t see it ASAP.
Style guides play a big role.
Style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook play an important role in creating a dictionary. This is because words have to be cited when they are given meaning. Moreover, style guides provide a limit. Style guides determine spelling and definition rules. Style guides make the job easier for editors, considering that they have an entire language to define.
Just because a word isn’t in a dictionary doesn’t mean it’s not a word anymore.
If your word doesn’t make it to a dictionary, don’t be disappointed. Dictionaries aren’t rulebooks. Dictionaries are tools that help us when we’re having trouble understanding or constructing sentences. English is the most popular language in the world, and lexicographers have to constantly adjust to that. If your word is popular within your community, or even your friends and family, that is a feat in itself. For all you know, you could be coined within a year or two.
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