How do words get into dictionaries?

A few months ago I wrote a column about long words. In it I noted that the longest word to be recognized by the good people at Merriam-Webster was considerably shorter than some of the long words recognized by their competitors. So why is that?

“Famously,” they say, “the ‘longest word in the dictionary’ isn’t actually a word . . . because it’s never used to mean what it seems to describe. It’s only used as an example of a very long word. (So) It’s not in our dictionary.”

Thinking about that fact led me to wonder just exactly how the editors of various dictionaries decide on which words merit admission to their scholarly tomes. So I started digging.

It seems that the quickest way — and the one used by British blogger Lyza Danger Gardner — is to take an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary out and get him drunk. It really worked; she got a word into the OED that way. Only problem is it wasn’t the one she was trying to get in.

In the process of talking to him about a nonsense word (“nugry”) that she wanted to have added into his prestigious tome, she frequently used a phrase that piqued his interest, and that’s how “food coma” (a feeling of drowsiness after a big meal) came to be included in the OED.

A more conventional way to nominate a word you’re crazy about to the Oxford English Dictionary would be to use the submission form at public.oed.com.

However, some dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster, don’t have a submission form. So, let’s say — just for the sake of argument — that you don’t happen to hang around with a lexicographer who’s also a lush. How do you go about getting your favorite new word into these other dictionaries?

That’s the predicament of siblings Johnathan and Hillary Krieger of Boston whose father, Neil, made up the word “orbisculate” (to accidentally squirt juice or pulp into one’s eye from a grapefruit when using a spoon to scoop out a section for eating) for the sole reason of trying to get it into the dictionary.

Personally, I’d also like to see “toller” (a live duck once used as a decoy, such as the ones raised by Maine writer John Gould when he was younger for his friend L. L. Bean) make it into the dictionary.

According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, in order to be included in their lexicon, a word must not only be meaningful, it must also be one that the average adult is likely to encounter. It also must be cited in a wide range of edited publications, be they newspapers, magazines or online (“usage is usage”), over a considerable period of time, which is known as a “lexical gap.” (And “a considerable period” can mean as much as 25 years, which is how long it took for “dad joke” to finally make the cut.)

Also making it into the big book in that same slow way are initialisms and slang (it took 15 years for “OMG” to make the cut), as well as newer uses for existing words, such as “mouse” and “cookies.” (The people at the OED stress that “These words may not make the headlines, but they’re just as important as words that are newly coined.”)

So my advice to the Krieger family is to use “orbisculate” as often as possible and in as many places as possible — and it wouldn’t bother me at all if that grapefruit juice orbisculated into the eye of a toller now and then if it resulted in the duck’s inclusion in the dictionary.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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