“I coined a new word. Snacktabulous. It describes a snack, but a really spectacular and fabulous one. How do I get it into the dictionary?”
This is one of the most common questions we get—and it’s a great one.
How does a word get added to the dictionary?
Our lexicographers, the people who write and edit the dictionary, are constantly adding new words to the dictionary and updating the senses of existing ones.
For a word to get into the dictionary, two main things must happen:
- It has to be in widespread use among a group of people. This means a lot of people are using the word and agree upon what it means, whether it’s spoken or in writing.
- That word has to have staying power. This means the word isn’t a one-off, that the word is likely going to be in continuous use for a long time.
Let’s break this down a little bit more.
A lot of us make up new words. They’re called neologisms and 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 that word to get into the dictionary, our lexicographers need evidence that the word is being used by a lot of people in a meaningful, sustained way.
As one of our lexicographers explains: “Your new word won’t make it into the dictionary—even if it is very clever or fills a specific need in the language—unless it gets adopted and used by other people. The dictionary only includes words that have a specific meaning many people can agree on.”
So, snacktabulous: You’ll want to get a great many people to adopt this word and use it to describe particularly tasty snacks.
“But is that a real word?”
What if you’ve come across a word that is in widespread use but it isn’t in the dictionary? Well, it’s very likely our lexicographers are already in the process of compiling the information they need to give it its due home.
Just because a word isn’t (yet) in the dictionary, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a real word. Words and language are constantly evolving, and our lexicographers are tirelessly documenting them.
It’s the dictionary’s job to describe all words the way they are used in the real world, so dictionaries contain standard words, slang words, dialect words, nonstandard words, and more. (And by “all words,” we do mean all words, and that includes swears and slurs, too. Their inclusion in the dictionary doesn’t mean we approve of their use; it’s evidence, even if hurtful, that the words are or have been used by people.)
The work of a dictionary is to document the meaning of words as they are actually used. This approach is called descriptivism. It is way of studying language that observes how people are really using language in the speech and writing of their real lives. As our lexicographers have put it: “Dictionaries are in the messy business of showing how actual people use words in the real world.” They read a wide variety of texts and transcribed speech and then write definitions based on that research.
Compare this to prescriptivism, which is concerned with making rules about how things should be used, not documenting how they actually are. 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 and how it’s commonly used.
We’re still holding out for you, snacktabulous.