Language Matters - February 1, 2021 - 5 min

How Do New Words Enter the Dictionary?

Antidote’s dictionaries, like any good dictionary, aim to represent as accurately as possible the lexicon of the language(s) in question. However, not all existing words get selected to appear in them. Neologisms (new words, senses or expressions) are added to living languages all the time, through coinages, borrowings or revivals, and many do not stay relevant for long. Faced with the near-infinite potential of lexical creativity, lexicographers (the people tasked with creating dictionaries) can include only a selection of new words. Let’s enter the fascinating world of neologisms and the lexicographers who trawl for them.

Language Is Always Changing

New words, and new senses for old words, are a reflection of the concerns and activities of society in action. There are many motivations for new words, including innovations (such as bioprinting and the selfie stick), discoveries (an estimated 18,000 species are discovered and named each year1), cultural exchange (for instance the Danish hygge), new social realities (such as maskne and deplatforming), and the desire to describe old realities in fresh ways (think preloved to describe second-hand items).

The internet has accelerated the spread of language innovation, and at the same time has provided linguists with powerful tools to track this spread. In the past, linguists had to resort to poring over texts and travelling to, mailing or telephoning speakers to glean new words and senses. Today, they can use computers to mine for data on huge datasets, some derived from social media platforms that host millions of users.

Trends in New Word Formation

There are many manners in which new words are formed. Here is just a sample:

• The combination of words with affixes, such as nanomedicine from nano- and medicine and decarceration from incarceration. This is one of the most common word formation processes in English.2 
• Functional shift, wherein an existing word’s grammatical category is changed, such as the verb overwhelm becoming a noun in expressions like managing overwhelm. One type of functional shift is verbing, as discussed in the Language Matters article Is It Acceptable to Verb? 
• The incorporation of loanwords, i.e., words from a foreign language, including ancient languages. A flood of loanwords entered the English language from French during the Norman Conquest of England that began in 1066, marking the beginning of Middle English. Today, by virtue of globalization, English takes loanwords from languages all over the world. Currently, English is the language with the most speakers in the world, when counting both native and nonnative speakers, and is a major lingua franca.3 As such, it naturally absorbs loanwords through cultural exchange. English is so comfortable with adopting foreign terms that it even includes foreign diacritics in select loanwords, as discussed in the Language Matters article Using Accents and Diacritics in English. However, it’s worth mentioning that certain writers, George Orwell having been perhaps the most vocal among them, find clearly foreign terms like bête noire and weltanschauung to be pretentious and favour words from the native lexical stock when possible.4

The above word formation processes all use pre-existing words and affixes as the building blocks for new words. Completely new root morphemes with no history in English or another language, sometimes known as ex nihilo root creations, are very rare. One such off-piste creation is googol, the term for 10100, invented apparently out of thin air by a nine-year-old boy.

Dictionaries Follow Selection Criteria

Dictionaries have criteria for which words to add, monitor, reject, and remove. When assessing a new word for inclusion, lexicographers usually consider the number of occasions the word has appeared, the range of sources it has appeared in, the length of time for which it has been in usage, and whether its meaning is stable enough to be described. Some of the words mentioned in this article have not yet met these criteria and therefore are not included in Antidote’s dictionary.

There is always a certain delay between a word’s appearance in the language and its admittance into the dictionary, in order to privilege the words that prove to be more enduring over the ephemeral ones.

In addition to the above criteria, there are many publication choices that narrow the chosen word list of a dictionary, including the following:

• the dictionary’s size and format, namely electronic or paper, the latter often facing size constraints and requiring the periodic removal of less relevant words to make room for new ones 
• whether the dictionary covers archaic words and senses, regional dialects, informal registers, etc. 
• the targeted readership (the general public, specialists, students, children, writers, language learners, etc.)

Not All Real Words Are Dictionary Words

It is important to note that a word’s absence from dictionaries does not mean it is not a “real word”. Any sequence of sounds and letters that someone uses to convey meaning is technically a word (with the possible exceptions of slips of the tongue and typing mistakes). Whether it fits the criteria to enter a dictionary is a different matter.

The types of words that are often omitted from standard dictionaries include the following:

• Coinages used by a single speaker that have not yet spread into wider usage, such as mycoverse, a term coined by mycologist Paul Stamets, and incisionish, a David Foster Wallace coinage in Infinite Jest (1996). When coinages are created on the spur of the moment to meet the needs of a singular occasion, they are known as nonce formations. By way of illustration, this Language Matters author referred to herself as the nonce formation neologigator, an investigator of neologisms, while writing this article. 
• Terms that are used by a very limited community, such as VB6er, a person who follows the vegan-before-six-p.m. diet recommended in a 2013 cookbook by Mark Bittman. Even more personal are words from a familect, the word-creations specific to a particular family. For example, one book on familects documents 57 family words for a TV remote.5 
• Jargon that has not gained relevance outside a particular field. This jargon may appear in subject-specific dictionaries and glossaries, but works destined for a wider public, like those of Antidote, cannot list all of it, and instead select among the specialized terminology those words and phrases that are most likely to be found in general literature and in the news. 
• Proper nouns, which are the domain of encyclopedias. While there is much crossover between a dictionary and an encyclopedia, they each have a fundamentally different focus: It is the dictionary’s job to explain words, and the encyclopedia’s job to explain things. So while in an English dictionary you will find sly the adjective, in an encyclopedia you may instead find Sly in the context of the so-named 1920 Italian opera by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. Antidote operates as an encyclopedic dictionary by featuring, alongside the words of the language, a wide but by no means exhaustive collection of proper nouns. If you search in Antidote for a proper noun that it does not recognize, Antidote will provide a link to search for the corresponding entry in the extensive online encyclopedia Wikipedia
• Unusual representations of dialect in fiction, such as handkercher, a variation of handkerchief spoken by a character in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860–1861). 
• Most hashtags, such as #MondayMotivation, although hashtags that have gained widespread significance, such as #MeToo, sometimes find their way into standard dictionaries.

Lexicographers Are Word Detectives

Antidote’s lexicographers are constantly on the lookout for new words and expressions, for example by using corpus research, reading publications from a variety of sources, and considering new word suggestions from users. We have created tools that, when applied to masses of text, extract words that are not yet known to Antidote and evaluate the frequency of these discoveries. New words and expressions, as well as new senses of existing entries, are regularly added to Antidote’s dictionaries.

Antidote’s Personal Dictionaries

Users of Antidote with a penchant for neologisms can play the role of lexicographer by adding words to their own personal dictionaries that are not (or not yet!) included in Antidote’s official dictionaries. Antidote’s corrector will then recognize these neologisms the next time the user submits a text that features them.

Now You Know How Words Come and Go

The stream of new words into language reflects the liveliness of the community that uses them and the adaptability of the language that holds them. Lexicographers monitor the ever-changing lexicon and apply criteria to determine which words have established themselves enough to warrant an entry in the dictionary. While lexicographers get the final word on a dictionary’s inclusions, remember that their true fate is determined by the language’s users who usher in new words, spread them through complex networks, transform them, and sometimes abandon them.

  1. “IISE.” ESF Web. Retrieved January 25, 2021.  

  2. Putnam, Michael T. and B. Richard Page (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Germanic Linguistics. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 239. 

  3. “What is the most spoken language?” Ethnologue. Retrieved January 26, 2021.  

  4. Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” First published in 1946 in Horizon, 13(76), pp. 252–265. Retrieved January 25, 2021.  

  5. The English Project. Kitchen Table Lingo. London, Ebury Publishing, 2012, back cover. 

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