Spoken word not enough for dictionary

The year was 1989, and "snitty" started off strong. The word popped up in the Los Angeles Times in January, then appeared in the March and August editions of People magazine.

Spoken word not enough for dictionary
It was one of hundreds of words being tracked by editors at Merriam-Webster who are always searching for new terms to enter into the Collegiate Dictionary.

But something went wrong. The editors, who were eager to define snitty as "disagreeably agitated," no longer saw the word in national newspapers and magazines. Snitty fizzled. Although it was commonly used in conversation, Merriam-Webster's editors could only find three examples of its use in print. They had no choice but to reject it.

They began noticing it again 2005, first in Entertainment Weekly and then in several newspapers. With about a dozen examples of snitty being published, the term is now a likely shoo-in for next year's Collegiate.

When it comes to making it into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, spoken word isn't enough.

"We need evidence that it's being used in print," said senior editor Jim Lowe, who is at a loss to explain snitty's six-year publication gap.

Snitty's journey from popular use to the pages of the country's largest selling dictionary goes to the heart of what Merriam-Webster's Collegiate strives to be: an official collection of words and definitions that grows and changes with modern conversations.

"It's circular," says Daniel Brandon, one of the 40 or so editors who read through hundreds of newspapers and magazines looking for "neologisms" — newly coined or created words. "People look to us to settle the argument over whether a word is really a word. But we look to them for how to enter it in the dictionary in the first place."

Brandon and his fellow new-word seekers work alone in cubicles filling the second floor of Merriam-Webster's headquarters in Springfield. Other than an air conditioner's hum, the clicking of computer keys and pages turning, the room is as silent as a library.

The editors spend hours reading everything from science and medical journals to entertainment and fashion magazines. They have no phones on their desks, and if there's a need for conversation, communication might happen in a whisper if not an e-mail or handwritten note.

New-looking words are highlighted, and the passage in which they are discovered is typed onto an index card and entered into a computer database.

Around this time each year, Lowe goes through a list of hundreds of the newly flagged words, and sees how many citations were made for each. If there were at least eight, the word becomes a strong contender to be passed on to John Morse, Merriam-Webster's president and final arbiter on what word goes into the dictionary.

The list now on its way to Morse contains snitty and 76 other words, from "air-kiss" (exactly what you think it is), to "za" (shorthand for "pizza.")

Along with an extensive vocabulary, the editors also need something a bit less tangible to hunt their quarry. And there isn't even an English word for it: Sprachgefuhl.

"It's just a feeling for the language," Lowe said, defining the German term. "It's an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate."

It's not as tough as it may sound.

Consider "regift."

The word wormed its way into American conversations in early 1995, after it was blurted by the character Elaine on an episode of TV's "Seinfeld." Because the word itself describes what it means, and with so many unwanted present recyclers finally getting a name for their actions, the word caught on easily.

But that wasn't good enough for Merriam-Webster. Editors didn't flag it until more than six years later, when it appeared in an article in Glamour magazine.

"We're not trying to pick up on a word that just became popular and everyone starts speaking it," said Joanne Despres, a senior editor. Once regift started gaining momentum in publications after 2001, Despres did some more checking and found that "regift" started appearing in newspapers almost immediately after it debuted on "Seinfeld."

"It may have been coined in a specific place, but it really took off," Despres said.

The process for entering new words varies a bit among the Collegiate's competitors — the American Heritage College Dictionary, the Oxford American Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary — but the overall concept is the same. New words need to be spotted, tracked and analyzed.

None of the dictionaries has published definitions of snitty or regift, but they compete by boasting frequent updates to make themselves appear current.

And they each show off similar sounding claims on their covers: "America's Best Selling Dictionary" (Merriam-Webster); "America's Favorite Dictionary" (American Heritage); "The World's Most Trusted Dictionaries" (Oxford); "We Define Your World" (Webster's New World).

Just because a word makes it into the dictionary — even Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, which sells about 500,000 copies each year — not everyone is convinced that it has enough staying power to stick around for four or five decades, the average amount of time between printings of the company's massive unabridged dictionary.

"Since every dictionary claims to be authoritative and up-to-date, they proudly add a sprinkling of new words and say they're the best," said Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. "But it's impossible to know which of the new words are going to last. You can make predictions, but the only way you can be sure is to wait at least 40 years."

Merriam-Webster's employees say they do their job without prejudice. Just because they're entering a new word doesn't mean they necessarily like it. The philosophy comes from the Merriam-Webster's patriarch, Noah Webster, who published his first dictionary 200 years ago. Webster believed that language is constantly in flux, and that his dictionary could take a snapshot of popular words in the American vocabulary.

"We don't get to decide on the basis of our own likes and dislikes what goes in the dictionary," Morse said. "But we do use our judgment to decide whether a word has become well established."

To prove it, Morse admits to not being a big fan of "regift."

"I would not have thought that it would've come this far," he said.

Not that he's snitty about it, of course.

Last Mod: 16 Eylül 2007, 12:19
Add Comment