How To Get a Word into the Dictionary

“I coined a new word. How do I get it into the dictionary?”

This is, by far, the question lexicographers hear the most. People invent new words all the time, but which ones actually make it? When lexicographers decide what words to add to dictionaries, they try to imagine what words people actually want to look up. There are two important factors to keep in mind here: 1) Is the word in widespread usage? 2) Does the word have staying power?

The usage question is an important one that gets at the heart of how dictionaries are written. When modern lexicographers define words or find words to add to dictionaries, they tend to approach their work from the angle of descriptivism. That is, they observe how the language is being used, and then write definitions based on that research. Compare this to a prescriptivist approach, which is more concerned with determining how things should be. While prescriptivists might say a slang term is “not a real word,” descriptivists will look at the same term and do some research to see if it’s a common phenomenon. Lexicographers are very unlikely to proclaim, “That’s not a word!” unless they’re challenging an opponent in Scrabble.

Even so, widespread usage doesn’t guarantee a word will get a shiny new definition in a dictionary. Is the word going stay around for a while, or is it just a passing fad? Does it fill a gap in the language? Is it likely to be in use in 5, 10, 20, or even 100 years? These are important questions to ask because there are far more updates and new words to be added to dictionaries than lexicographers have time to write.

Which brings us to the question at hand: how do you get your word into the dictionary?

Are you famous? Do you have influence?
If you’re famous and have a following, that could definitely up your chances of getting a word into a dictionary. Are you a writer? That could help. Take, for example, William Shakespeare, who coined (or at least popularized) hundreds of words and phrases commonly used today. And there’s Dr. Seuss, who coined the term nerd. But writers aren’t the only ones who tend to have coinages. Politicians also tend to do very well. Abraham Lincoln coined the word neologize, among other words, and Winston Churchill has the first citation in the OED for many words, including fluffily and fly-in. Maybe you’re a blogger. The term blog is a relatively new coinage, which arose in 1999 when Peter Merholz made a lighthearted comment on the sidebar of his then “weblog” telling his readers “I’ve decided to pronounce the word ‘weblog’ as wee’-blog. Or ‘blog’ for short.” Or perhaps you’re a media personality. Take, for example, Stephen Colbert’s coinage truthiness, which received the honor of becoming a 2005 Word of the Year, as appointed by the American Dialect Society. If you’re a person with influence and a following, the words you use can spread into common usage, which, as discussed above, is a very important metric when it comes to attaining immortalization via dictionary-entry.

Have you invented or discovered anything lately that previously didn’t have a name?
If you’re not famous, there are other ways to make a word go viral. Have you invented or discovered anything amazing lately? Maybe you’re a scientist introducing new concepts to the public. Take, for example, the Higgs Boson particle, named after physicist Peter W. Higgs. But you don’t have to be a scientist making important contributions to knowledge to get a word in the dictionary. Just look at Dominique Ansel, the pastry chef who captured the stomachs of New Yorkers with his hybrid portmanteau dessert, the cronut. His culinary invention even inspired copycats in the form of doissants and duffins.

So, why do some words make it into dictionaries while others don’t? As discussed above, main factors include widespread usage and staying power. Apart from these, it does sometimes help if the word is fun to say, like blog or nerd. Words can also stick around longer if they fill a gap in the language, as with truthiness. With this knowledge in hand, go forth and use language creatively. Lexicographers are listening!