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Did you ever wonder how a word gets into the dictionary?
To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, dictionary editors study the language to determine which words people use most often and how they use them.
M & W Dictionary ( Each day most dictionary editors devote an hour or two to reading books, newspapers, magazines, electronic publications -- in fact a cross-section of all kinds of published materials; in our office this activity is called "reading and marking." The editors are looking for new words, new meanings of existing words, evidence of variant spellings or inflected forms -- in short, anything that might help in deciding if a word belongs in the dictionary, understanding what it means, and determining typical usage. Any word of interest is marked, along with surrounding context that offers insight into its form and use.
The marked passages are then input into a computer system and stored both in machine-readable form and on 3" x 5" slips of paper to create citations. Making the jump from the citation file to the dictionary is a long process.
Each citation has the following elements:
  1. the word itself
  2. an example of the word used in context
  3. bibliographic information about the source from which the word and example were taken

Merriam-Webster's citation files, which were begun in the 1880s, now contain nearly 15 million examples of words used in context and cover all aspects of the English vocabulary. Citations are also available to editors in a searchable text database (linguists call it a corpus) that includes 50,000,000 words drawn from a great variety of sources.

The process begins with dictionary editors reviewing groups of citations. Definers start by looking at citations covering a relatively small segment of the alphabet -- for example gri- to gro- -- along with the entries from the dictionary being reedited that are included within that alphabetical section. It is the definer's job to determine which existing entries can remain essentially unchanged, which entries need to be revised, which entries can be dropped, and which new entries should be added. In each case, the definer decides on the best course of action by reading through the citations and using the evidence in them to adjust entries or create new ones.

Before a new word can be added to the dictionary, it must have enough citations to show that it is widely used. But having a lot of citations is not enough; in fact, a large number of citations might even make a word more difficult to define, because many citations show too little about the meaning of a word to be helpful. A word may be rejected for entry into a general dictionary if all of its citations come from a single source or if they are all from highly specialized publications that reflect the jargon of experts within a single field.
To be included in a dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time.
Delivering information via the Internet is the fastest way to make the latest information about language available.
John Morse, Publisher, Merriam-Webster
Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning. The number and range of citations needed to add a word to the dictionary varies. In rare cases, a word jumps onto the scene and is both instantly prevalent and likely to last, as was the case in the 1980s with AIDS. In such a situation, the editors determine that the word has become firmly established in a relatively short time and should be entered in the dictionary, even though its citations may not span the wide range of years exhibited by other words. The size and type of dictionary also affects how many citations a word needs to gain admission.
Because an abridged dictionary has fairly limited space, only the most commonly used words can be entered; to get into that type of dictionary, a word must be supported by a significant number of citations. But a large unabridged dictionary has room for many more words, so terms with fewer citations can still be included.

TO LEARN MORE

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th Edition)
Hardcover - 1699 pages / Mirriam Webster - (10th edition) 1998
The 1998 10th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary marks the 100th anniversary of this distinguished and popular reference standard.

Words into Type
Marjorie Skillin, Robert Malcom Gay / Hardcover - 585 pages / Prentice Hall - (3rd edition) 1974
This is the definitive text for questions of manuscript protocol, copyediting, style,
grammar, and usage. With its easy-to-use index and definitive explanations.

What's In A Word Fascinating Stories Of More Than 350 Everyday Words And Phrases
by Webb B. Garrison / Paperback - 256 pages / Rutledge Hill Press; (June 12, 2000)

Here is a fascinating and humorous encyclopedia of more than three hundred words and phrases and how they have taken on new meanings over time. It is an informative reference book for the whole family.

ON THE WEB:
Merriam-Webster
This site has lots to do besides just looking up words.
(URL: www.m-w.com)
OneLook Dictionaries
Allows you to search for multiple definitions of a word from a variety of online dictionaries.
(URL: www.onelook.com)
Voycabulary
You can look up words in online dictionaries and thesauri by entering a URL or paragraph and clicking on the words. Supports many languages and translations.
(URL: www.voycabulary.com)
Endangered Language Repository
An endangered language is a language headed for extinction. It is a language without monolingual speakers, people who speak only that language.They will provide you with a list of the various foundations around the world that are trying to stem the tide of language loss and offer you an opportunity to help.
(URL: www.yourdictionary.com/elr/index.html
)

WHERE TO FIND:
Merriam-Webster's 11th Edition Collegiate Dictionary & Thesaurus
Software / CD-ROM / WIN & MAC / Fogware PublishingLess than $20.00
Merriam-Webster's best-selling Collegiate® Dictionary, built on the foundation Noah Webster laid, moves into the 21st century. This powerful computer reference tool lets families, professionals, students, educators, and word game lovers explore and use the language as never before. Contains two products in one - the full text of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary  with 214,000 definitions, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Thesaurus, with 340,000 synonyms, antonyms, and more.

FUN FACTS:

  • Earth has over  6800 known languages.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised May 27, 2005.
 
   
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