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Getting a word into dictionaries

Q From Michael Day: If someone wanted to pose a new word to the major dictionaries, what would they do? How would they go about it?

A Readers ask this question frequently of World Wide Words, as they do of dictionary publishers. Your question provides an excellent opportunity to supply a definitive answer.

The experience of Mary O’Neill, the editor-in-chief of Chambers Dictionaries, is typical: “People often call or write to us with words they would like to see in a dictionary. Alex Horne created a Edinburgh Festival Fringe show in 2008 around his attempts to have dictionary publishers recognise words that he had coined. The Edinburgh publisher Canongate recently launched a campaign to have the word eunoia — translated from Greek as ‘beautiful thinking’, and the title of a book by one of their published poets — entered into The Chambers Dictionary.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to tell you not to waste your time, but dictionaries base decisions on what to include on a wide variety of factors; information from members of the public about words they have invented that are untested in the forum of public opinion forms only a tiny part of the process. As Mary O’Neill went on to explain: “At Chambers, we’re always happy to receive suggestions for new words. However, like other dictionary publishers, it’s not our policy to include words until we have evidence that they have been used by a range of people over a reasonable period of time. We do not include words just because they are etymologically plausible if we don’t have evidence that they are in current use.”

The traditional method of collecting evidence of new words and of how much they’re used has been for editors and freelance helpers to systematically read books and newspapers (I do this for the Oxford English Dictionary). These days, with computing resources at their disposal that would have been the envy of earlier generations of lexicographers, all dictionary publishers have vast databases of current usage, collectively called corpora (from Latin corpus, a body). Chambers has the Chambers Harrap International Corpus of nearly one billion words; Collins and Oxford have collections that are similar in size and scope. Mary O’Neill told me, “With a little analysis, such a corpus can show how frequently a word is used and whether it is restricted to a small group of users.”

Through systematic reading and corpus enquiry, editors can decide whether to include a word. Cormac McKeown, a senior editor at Collins English Dictionaries, comments: “If we find it used a sufficient number of times across a sufficient number of sources, over a sufficiently long period of time, we include it in our dictionaries. What these thresholds are depends on the size of the dictionary — generally, the smaller the dictionary the higher the requisite number of hits in our corpus.”

If you want to persist, Mary O’Neill has some encouragement and advice: “If people do find words useful, and start to repeat them, it is possible that they will catch on and eventually merit a place in the dictionary. If someone wants to have their coinage included, they should use it as much as possible, encourage others to do so and, if they can, use it where it will ensure a wider audience, for example a letter to a newspaper, or a radio or TV interview or phone-in. Keep a record of where and when you have heard it used by others. Then, when you have enough evidence to prove that the word is established, send it to your dictionary publisher of choice.”

Over to you and good luck!

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Page created 28 Feb 2009