Language is a living thing, and so is Dictionary.com. Our dictionary will always be a work in progress—there’s no day in the future when we’ll mark it “complete” after adding the last word.
This never-ending work is the job of our lexicographers, the (amazingly talented) people who write and edit the dictionary. They do more than just add and define words. They also add new definitions to existing entries for words that have developed new senses over time. They revise definitions that have become outdated or have otherwise changed. And they add and update other key lexicographical content, like pronunciations and etymologies.
How does a word get into the dictionary?
This is one of the most common questions we get—and it’s a great one.
The answer involves one of the most misunderstood things about dictionaries, so let’s set the record straight: a word doesn’t become a “real word” when it’s added to the dictionary. It’s actually the other way around: we add words to the dictionary because they’re real—because they’re really used by real people in the real world.
In other words, our lexicographers add a word to the dictionary when they determine that:
- It’s a word that’s used by a lot of people.
- It’s used by those people in largely the same way.
- It’s likely to stick around.
- And it’s useful for a general audience.
All four of these points are important. Our lexicographers look for use not just by one person, but by a lot of people. Of course, many words have different shades of meaning for different people. But to be added to the dictionary, a word must have a shared meaning (that is, it must communicate a widely agreed-upon meaning from one person to the next). If everyone used a word in a completely different way, we wouldn’t be able to give it a definition, right?
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive
As we define it, our mission as a dictionary is to document words as they are actually used. In the world of dictionaries, this approach is called descriptivism. The opposite is prescriptivism, an approach that frames the dictionary in the role of a gatekeeper and is based on prescribing (setting rules for) how words should or should not be used. While prescriptivists might say a slang term is “not a real word,” descriptivists will look at the same term and do research to see if and how it’s commonly used in order to describe (document) its use. (Read more about this in the next FAQ, “That’s not a word.”)
We must acknowledge that, historically, dictionaries have been gatekeepers to nonstandard words and usage (especially those that originate in non-dominant groups), but we at Dictionary.com take very seriously our role and responsibility in ensuring that our dictionary reflects and respects the language of people as they use it.
Our lexicographers will be the first to tell you that documenting language in this way is a “messy business.” It takes a lot of research—and patience.
Identifying and tracking candidates
Lexicographers track a vast number of terms and topics, read a wide variety of writing and transcribed speech, and use corpora (big, searchable collections of texts) to see how terms are actually being used. They then distill this research into concise, informative definitions (along with supplementary information, such as pronunciations or notes about whether a word is offensive, for example).
Because we take this approach, our dictionary contains all kinds of words: standard words, slang words, dialect words, nonstandard words, and more. (Yes, this includes curse words and slurs. Read more about this in the FAQ “This word is offensive.”)
Staying power: prioritizing what gets added
Our main dictionary is a general dictionary, as opposed to a specialized one (like, for example, a medical dictionary—which we do also feature on the site). This means we have to prioritize the addition of terms based on whether the average person will be likely to encounter them—and whether it’s probable that people will continue to use them. For that reason, our lexicographers often wait until a word has gained some currency in the mainstream before selecting it for addition. (Read more about this in the FAQ “That word isn’t new.”)
Short answer: Lexicographers typically wait to add a word to our dictionary until they’ve determined that it has met these criteria:
- It has relatively widespread use.
- It has a widely agreed-upon meaning.
- It seems to have staying power—meaning it’s likely to be used for a long time.
- And it will be useful for a general audience.
That’s not a word. Why is it in the dictionary?
First off, we’re not fans of saying that something is “not a word.” Just because a word isn’t (yet) in the dictionary doesn’t mean that it’s “not a word” or that it’s not a “real word.”
Sometimes, people don’t think a word counts as a word if it’s informal, slang, “too new,” or a term they perceive to be “incorrect.” Irregardless (😉) of how you (or we) may feel personally about a particular word, our mission is to be descriptive—we work to describe and document language as it is really used (not just how we or others may want it to be used).
It’s important to note that judgments about what “counts” as a word often originate in conscious or unconscious biases, particularly about other people’s education, identity, or level of language proficiency.
Like we explained in the answer to the last question, we add a word to the dictionary when we observe a lot of people using it in the same way—and this includes many informal, slang, and nonstandard terms. You have the freedom to decide whether or not to use a word, but just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it ain’t a word.
Short answer: Our mission is to document and define words as they’re actually used—not to be gatekeepers or make rules about what is or is “not a word.” And just because a word is not in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s not a word.
That word isn’t new. Why are you adding it now?
Just because a word is newly added to our dictionary doesn’t mean it’s brand new to the English language. That’s why we like to refer to newly added words as “new entries,” as opposed to “new words,” which can imply that they’ve very recently been coined.
In fact, it’s rare for us to add a very recently coined term unless it’s clear that it has rapidly gained widespread use and that such use is likely to continue. Brand new words sometimes burn brightly but then quickly die out, so our lexicographers look for evidence of staying power in the lexicon. It takes time to gather such evidence and for words to settle in. This is especially the case for informal words that originate in a particular dialect or group, which take time to spread from speech to writing, an important part of evidence-gathering.
Waiting so long to add some terms may make it look like we’re behind the times, like a person who sounds cheugy for using a trendy slang term way after its moment has passed. It’s an occupational hazard, but with so many possible terms to add, we have to make tough decisions about what to prioritize. Especially since prioritizing one word may mean pushing another down on the list. (And yes, there is a list. More like lists of lists.)
As a general dictionary, we have to prioritize adding words that the average person will be likely to encounter. For that reason, our lexicographers are always on the lookout for breakthrough moments when a specialized word spreads into more common, mainstream use (such as all the epidemiology terms that became household words during the pandemic).
If you’ve come across a word that is in widespread use but that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, chances are that our lexicographers are already in the process of compiling the information they need to give it its due home. (In other words, it’s probably already on the list.)
Short answer: We rarely add “new” words. We wait to add a word to the dictionary until we’ve determined that it has gained relatively widespread use and is likely to stick around. Also, there are a lot of words to keep track of, so sometimes it takes us a while.
I just created an awesome new word. How can I get it into the dictionary?
First of all, the word you made up is a word—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s a word because you’ve given it a meaning that can be shared and understood by others.
A lot of us make up new words. They’re called neologisms or coinages. Making up new words is fun, creative, and—especially when that word addresses a gap in the language—an extremely useful thing to do.
But for your word to get into the dictionary, it has to have meaning not just for you, or for you and a few friends and family members, but for a lot of people. Our lexicographers need evidence that the word is being used by many people in a meaningful, sustained way.
Don’t be discouraged. A lot of words that are now very common were straight up made up. They started as one person’s idea and other people found them so useful that they spread and spread until they found a place in the language—and the dictionary.
Short answer: Keep using your word until it catches on, and when it does, our lexicographers will surely take note! Our dictionary is full of words whose coiner is named in the origin section.
This word is offensive. Why don’t you remove it from the dictionary?
We believe our mission of accurately documenting how language is used in real life is valuable for many reasons.
However, our inclusion of a word in the dictionary never implies or indicates endorsement, promotion, or approval of that word. Including a word as a dictionary entry does not mean that we think you should use it.
In fact, there are actually many, many words in our dictionary that we strongly believe no one should ever use. These words are called slurs. Why are they in the dictionary, then?
We understand and acknowledge that encountering such terms anywhere—even and perhaps especially in a dictionary—can be harmful to the people they were created to target. We wish we had the power to prevent people from ever wanting to use slurs. But we strongly believe that removing them from the dictionary would not have the effect of preventing or discouraging people from using them. In fact, we strongly believe it would have the opposite effect.
We work to ensure that such words are not included in the dictionary without context—slurs are clearly labeled as offensive and often appear alongside major usage notes explaining why.
Without these entries and the information that accompanies them, we believe that it would make it easier for people who use slurs to continue making many of the usual excuses that they make when they’re called out for using them: that the slur doesn’t really mean what people claim it means; that it’s not really offensive; or that it wasn’t intended to be offensive (that it was simply being used as a harmless joke). These statements about slurs may sound familiar, but none of them are ever true: slurs are, by definition, intended to be harmful and offensive.
For the very reason that the use of such words is so pervasive and harmful, we feel it’s important that they remain in the dictionary, where their meaning, use, and history can be documented, and where they can be clearly labeled as offensive.
Short answer: Removing words from the dictionary does not make them cease to exist or prevent them from being used. And the inclusion of a word in the dictionary is not an endorsement of its use. An important part of the work of a dictionary is documenting slurs and labeling them as what they are—intentionally offensive—so that their use cannot be excused.