The Million Word March

What defines a word? Lexicographers and other experts don’t always agree


It used to be that the expert source on what was or wasn't a word was that school-day staple: the dictionary. American Heritage, Webster's Third, the Oxford English: there were a few trusted players in the game.

But what if those players are losing their edge?

Take the word "staycation." Staycation, which means to spend a vacation at home, recently appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and MSNBC. But it isn't likely to appear anytime soon in a dictionary. The same goes for "bracketology," (the science of NCAA March Madness betting) Facebook and Wikipedia.

"We try to cover the most salient" words," says Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. "What does the educated layperson need to know?"

The people who make dictionaries are known as lexicographers ("authors or editors of a dictionary." Thanks, Merriam-Webster). And they have a time-tested method for choosing which new words to certify and which ones to toss before the next edition or update of a dictionary's Web site.

Groups of editors at a dictionary watch specific subject areas, logging the hits a new word gets. A "hit" is a mention in a book, newspaper or Web site. Then they put the hits in a database and compare the new terms to words they already have. So although Facebook, being a brand name, doesn't qualify, every word in Shakespeare's plays does – including cap-a-pie ("from head to foot") and fardel ("burden"). Being the granddaddy of creative linguistics, Shakespeare invented more than 1,700 words. All of them appear in an unabridged dictionary.

Dictionaries reject words for being too technical (even the most die-hard "Grey's Anatomy" fan will never need to know what a mammosomatotroph is) or for being too young (staycation).

They don't count brand names (Coke, Facebook, Wikipedia) or most foreign words and phrases.

"We aren't trying to be Wikipedia," Pickett said.

So who is? Who's keeping track of, counting and sorting the words English speakers use on an everyday basis?

About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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