Merriam-Webster, now almost 200 years old, is one of America’s most popular dictionaries. This September, their editors announced that they have added more than 250 words to the dictionary— a modest addition compared to last February’s 1,000 new words.
The new words from this month range from ‘froyo’ to ‘pregame’ to ‘alt-right.’ Many of these new words will be met with raised eyebrows. Whenever new words are added to the dictionary—especially slang words—there’s always backlash from older generations that would rather dig their heels in the past and cleanse the English language of impurities. These people may think that our language is regressing.
But as Merriam-Webster wisely states on their website, “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the the expansion of the language.” If a word becomes popular, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be included in the dictionary, even if some believe that slang doesn’t have a place there. The dictionary isn’t forcing people to use those words. It’s merely providing a tool to understand them.
Adding new words to the dictionary is not a simple process. Editors, or lexicographers, of any dictionary keep a close eye on language trends. When they notice a word surging in popularity, they take note. Lexicographers spend hours reading various published materials, including books, magazines and websites. When they notice that a new word is becoming popular, they put the word into a ling system that includes the spelling, the context and the citations. Merriam-Webster’s ling system began as early as the 1880s.
But popularity isn’t the only criterion; to be added to the dictionary, words must be used across a wide variety of sources over an extended period of time. There is no specific number of citations or a specific length of time that must pass, as the lexicographers make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Sometimes new words are connected to current events and die off fairly quickly. Sometimes the words have been around for a while, and just haven’t gotten the stamp of approval yet. Often, new words reflect advancing technology, and sometimes they’re clearly born from the internet—like the word ‘troll,’ for instance. Some recent additions include the words ‘selfie’ and ‘binge-watch.’ These words have become incorporated into our everyday speech, so it only makes sense that we should be able to find them in the dictionary.
Merriam-Webster even has a separate page called “New Words & Slang” for user-submitted words that haven’t quite emerged from the fringes and into everyday use, or that haven’t yet passed through the necessary research stages to allow them to take their spot in the dictionary. Examples of these include ‘woot’ and ‘ginormous.’
When people police words, or ridicule people for not using ‘proper English,’ we head down a slippery slope. Is there really a single correct way to speak English? That belief can lead to classism, because not everyone in America lives in a white, upper-middle-class suburb. Distinct words and phrases can emerge from communities that don’t fall into this category, and there isn’t a good reason why one way of speaking should be considered superior to the other.
Words can acquire alternate meanings as people stray from dictionary definitions. Take the word ‘literally,’ for example. I’ve met people who are outraged about sentences such as: ‘I’m literally going to explode.’ They’d most likely be outraged if they knew that this second usage of the word ‘literally’ has become so common that it has found its way into the pages of Merriam-Webster.
Some want the dictionary to remain stagnant. But English is always evolving—perhaps much faster than ever before now that the majority of us have access to the internet. Additionally, English has the highest population of non-native speakers. Incorporating new words and phrases into dictionaries and our own vocabularies certainly isn’t a new phenomenon.
Personally, I want to be able to look up the definition word up in Merriam-Webster without having to resort to the utter mayhem that is Urban Dictionary, where anyone can invent a new word out of the blue. It’s hard to tell which definitions actually represent the way the word is used and which ones are just pulling your leg (you might be interested to take a look at the most popular definition of ‘wellesley’).
Our language shapes the dictionary, not the other way around. The only reason your favorite historical figure wouldn’t have used the word ‘binge-watch’ was because Net ix didn’t exist yet. If language didn’t evolve, we’d all still be grunting and pointing.