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Here’s How the Oxford English Dictionary Chooses New Words

“YOLO,” “uptalk” and “gender-fluid” have all made the cut

(mrpolyonymous via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Four times a year, a group of wordsmiths at the Oxford English Dictionary survey the evolving landscape of the English language to see what new words they should incorporate into what's been considered the definitive dictionary. While people may have different opinions on what slang terms and new definitions should be included in the dictionary, there is a serious vetting process each word has to pass before being inscribed in the OED, Chitra Ramaswamy reports for The Guardian.

Earlier this month, the OED released its quarterly update, honoring more than 1,000 new words and definitions being added to the dictionary. The words on this list run the gamut from modern expressions like “YOLO” and “squee,” to terminology that has become more popular in common language, like “gender fluid,” Katy Steinmetz reports for TIME. While some critics might bemoan giving making slang words official, there’s a lot of work that goes into determining what terms make the cut.

“It might seem romantic, but it’s a lot of standard research, checks and balances,” Jonathan Dent, senior assistant editor for the OED new words team, tells Ramaswamy. “Anything new that goes into the dictionary is drafted and researched by us. It’s all down to evidence.”

Dent belongs to a 15-person squad of word researchers who spend their days analyzing databases and tracking collections of words called “corpuses” to see what new words become frequently used. While the group also judges reader submissions for inclusion, most of their time is spent studying massive electronic text databases for words that pop up more and more in common use, Ramaswamy reports.

It’s a much different process these days than when the OED was first compiled. In 1879, the Philological Society of London teamed up with Oxford University Press to put together a list of words and definitions, according to the official blog of Oxford Dictionaries. By the time the dictionary hit the shelves, they had enough new words to fill up an entire second volume, Dent tells Ramaswamy. Now that the dictionary exists online as well as in print form, word researchers can update the it fast enough to keep up with the massive numbers of new words that people are devising every day on social media.

“We are always tracking new words that arrive in the language and start to be picked up widely,” Dent tells Ramaswamy. “OED traditionally waits for 10 years of evidence before we add a word but there are exceptions such as livermorium, a chemical element, in this update, which has only been around since 2012. At the same time the wider project of revising the whole text of the dictionary continues.”

While most words are chosen for their prominence and popularity as written words, OED researchers do have some soft spots for anniversaries. Today marks what would have been author Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, and the recent update included several classic Dahl-isms, like “scrumdiddlyumptious” and “Oompa Loompa,” the Press Association reports. Meanwhile, Dent and his team are already back at work on the next update, which could include hot-button terms like “Brexit” and “slacktivism." 

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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