The never-ending story of words
A dictionary tells a story.
Really? Most of us wouldn’t think of a dictionary that way. But five UMass alumni who work at dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster reveal how dictionaries actually reflect shifts in society, and how UMass prepared them for their work now—transcribing the ever-evolving story that the dictionary tells.
Merriam-Webster has been publishing dictionaries since 1847 and offers 40 different products, and its staff also curate conversations about words online—they post a “word of the day” and produce a weekly podcast called Word Matters. This powerhouse publisher, whose website receives more than three million visits daily, is located in Springfield, Massachusetts—just a short hop from the UMass Amherst campus.
Writing a dictionary
According to Merriam-Webster, a lexicographer is “an author or editor of a dictionary.” And while that sounds simple enough, most people don’t think about exactly how dictionaries—the authorities on spelling, grammar, and usage of an entire language—are created. “I had just never considered that people wrote dictionaries,” says Emily Brewster ’99, senior editor and editorial ambassador for Merriam-Webster. “Like the general populace, I had this idea that the dictionary just springs fully formed from the bookshelf,” she laughs.
But the truth is that words are continuously being added to the dictionary, and lexicographers like Brewster spend a significant amount of time researching to decide both what words to add to the dictionary and when to add them—trickier and more subjective than it first appears.
In order to add a word to the dictionary, Brewster explains, there are four benchmarks. Its use must be:
- Sustained—There must be evidence showing the word in use in the language for an extended period of time. There are exceptions to this, like “COVID-19,” which took only 34 days to get added to the online dictionary. But in that particular case, she says, “there was no doubt that this word was going to have a lasting impact on the language.”
- Meaningful—The word needs to settle into a specific meaning that doesn’t change.
- Widespread—There must be examples of the word’s use in enough publications and enough different kinds of sources to demonstrate that it’s really a part of the English language as a whole.
- Organic—The word should not just be talked about, but actually function organically in the language and clearly be employed by speakers of English to communicate meaning.
Linda Picard Wood ’83, senior editor and print products manager for Merriam-Webster, explains, “We’re trying to capture the actual vocabulary of English speakers, not just put in trendy words to seem current.” That said, she admits, the criteria are “sometimes a matter of editorial judgment.” And according to Sarah Carragher ’16, an assistant editor for Merriam-Webster, “Each new entry is a collaborative effort.” When she submits a draft of a definition, it’s always reviewed by several other editors.
The English language is a big sprawling mess of a thing.
While it’s rare for words to get retired, it occasionally happens, especially in print versions where there are space constraints. A term might get removed because it’s deemed no longer necessary due to changes in technology or because it has fallen from common use. For example, “color film” was in the 1961 Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged version, but has since been removed because it’s now considered self-explanatory and the meaning can easily be determined from reading the entries for “color” and “film.”
Instead of being removed, some words’ definitions are updated or tagged to indicate that their meaning has changed. As Brewster explains, a word’s meaning may also need to be revised because of cultural shifts or increased awareness. “A note on the entries for idiot, imbecile, and moron now informs readers that these terms used to be technical descriptors, but have since been broadly rejected and are now considered offensive,” she adds. And while the word “troll” has been in the dictionary for a long time, newer senses of the term have only recently been added—like “to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.”
It’s like the words are organisms and we’re just looking at what they do in their different contexts.
“We’re not trying to control the language or censor anyone. It’s not our role to decide what words people should use or how they should use them,” says Wood, “we’re just documenting it—we’re reporters.”
Susan Brady ’89MA, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster, explains, “We want to be objective … we just look at the words and the evidence in front of us and make decisions based on that.”
The dictionary as a public utility
In 1996 Merriam-Webster Online was launched, giving users full, free access to their dictionary and thesaurus—which continues to this day. “Having no paywall and making it free keeps it a public utility,” says Sokolowski. He adds that this also provides an important opportunity to collect data—to see how dictionary use is impacted by what’s happening in politics, sports, the environment, what’s happening in the country and in the world. The online dictionary includes “Top Lookups Right Now,” which tracks in real time what people are looking up, refreshed every 30 seconds. Events like the national spelling bee or a presidential debate motivate people to look up words in the moment, so they understand what’s being talked about.
“National stories provoke enormous vocabulary curiosity,” Sokolowski explains. For example, lookups of the word “indict” and “indictment” went up 700% on June 30 and July 1, 2021, as a grand jury indicted the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer. Lookups of the word “murraya” spiked 100,000% on July 8–9, 2021, because it was the final word spelled correctly by Zaila Avant-Garde, winning her the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Dictionary use also tells us a story. Sokolowski says, “It’s a cultural story, it’s a linguistic story, it’s a political story.”