A Merriam-Webster editor reveals how words are added to the dictionary

Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, told us what criteria a word needs to meet in order to be added to the dictionary. Following is a transcript of the video.

In order to enter a word in the dictionary it needs to meet three criteria.

My name is Kory Stamper. I am a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. A lexicographer is a person who writes and edits dictionaries.

The first criterion is it needs to have widespread use. So it has to have use an all sorts of places, both tonally and geographically. So we want to see something appear in the Wall Street Journal and Vibe magazine for instance, or something that shows up in California and the Midwest. Sustained use is the second criterion. That means that a word has to have a shelf life. It needs to be around for a long enough time that we know it’s not just a blip in the language. Cause there are lots of words that kind of come and go in the language and weirdly enough when you enter a word into the dictionary people tend to use it more. So you want to make sure that it’s actually in the language. And then the third criterion is it has to have meaningful use. Which means it has to have a meaning that lexicographers can actually grab a hold of. And that sounds stupid because all words have meaning. But there are a handful words that get used in print mostly as examples of long words or as nonsense words that don’t actually have a lexical meaning. I can’t write a meaning for antidisestablishmentarianism for instance because nobody uses it in a sentence.

The way that we find new words is through reading. We pretty much read everything in print from anywhere. The goal is to use sources that are written, published, and professionally edited. That’s changing a little bit in the internet age. What we look for now is major sources for lots of different places. So, we read magazines, newspapers, blogs, trade journals, books. I’ve read diaper boxes, and frozen food cartons, and beer bottles. If it has print on it, we read it. And what we’re doing when we read, is we’re looking for words that catch our eye. Now, usually those are new words but sometimes that’s a new meaning of an old word. And when we find that, we kind of slurp it into a database, and each of those little bits of information is called a citation. And citations are the raw material that we use when defining a word in a dictionary.

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