Who Makes Words?


It’s hard to argue against the fact that many words exist to describe real world occurrences. I imagine that words synonymous with eat and sleep were some of the first additions to our ancestors’ vocabulary. A primitive vocabulary called for formal syntax over time, resulting in spoken language. Therefore it is easy to imagine how words associated with regular human activities such as eating and sleeping came to be. Words like tree or elephant were established out of a necessity to describe regular occurrences as well. However, human development has made me consider how words become established as part of the formal vocabulary in dictionaries within modern contexts.

I can imagine Enlightenment thinkers selectively choosing which words entered dictionaries on a whimsical basis. Intellectuals made up the majority of the literate population at the time, so it is highly probable that vernacular phrasing had little to no impact on dictionaries of the time. From my historical knowledge, books were created by intellectuals for intellectuals; thus the word choice tended to be formal to an elitist extent. Additionally, many scholarly works were published in latin which was completely inaccessible to the general public. In this historical setting I can project that words added to the dictionary were filtered by the intellectuals who held a monopoly over written works. I can also imagine that many terms introduced at the time resulted from breakthroughs in fields of academia that required certain levels of abstraction. The creation of terms necessary for describing academic results demonstrates how dictionary additions could have been selective to the point that frequency of usage was not the determining factor.

Moving onwards to modern times, usage is the measure by which words are included in dictionaries. To answer how Merrian-Webster adds words to its dictionary, editors responded, “The answer is simple: usage. Each day most Merriam-Webster editors devote an hour or two to reading a cross section of published material, including books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications…The editors scour the texts in search of new words, new usages of existing words, variant spellings, and 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.” When editors find interesting vernacular terminology or unofficial words they think may be worthy of including in the dictionary, they keep a citation. Merriam-Webster keeps a vast catalogue of such citations indicating the usage of the unofficial word in context. The collection of citations by editors over time is what prompts formally adding a word to the dictionary. However, certain words that appear abruptly, but have high frequency of usage, are added relatively quickly.

I think popularized inventions are a steady contributor to dictionary entries. Words such as telephone, telegraph or computer probably entered dictionaries rather quickly once they transitioned from private inventions into commercialized goods available to the public.This transition varies on a case by case basis since some words are associated with inventions that caught public attention rather quickly, translating to heavier usage. Merriam-Webster stated the first citation of telephone dates back to 1844. The telephone was indeed created in 1844, by Captain John Taylor. However, I am not sure if the same selective measures from the Enlightenment plagued dictionary entries in 1844. What I can guarantee is that the citation date coincides with the invention of the first telephone. The realization of the word internet, tells a much clearer story. Merriam-Webster cites the first usage to be from 1985. The internet was created earlier than that, dating back to the 1960s when the United States government established communication lines through computer networks. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the World Wide Web came into being to make internet publicly accessible. This clearly demonstrates the gap between the invention of internet itself and the addition of the word to the dictionary. Internet was added as a word once it became publicly accessible and a spike in usage provoked adding the term to the dictionary. In this manner, popularized inventions make their way into the dictionary.

Interestingly enough, academic terminology is still a contributor to dictionary entries. I think editors find academic terminology credible once the research it supports has been validated by the respective community of experts. Since I am familiar with mathematical terminology, I tested several different types of entries. Banach space is defined as a complete normed vector space and modulo is defined as “with respect to a modulus of”. Banach space is from 1935 whereas modulo came into being in 1897. I don’t have a physical dictionary on me right now, but (correct me if I’m wrong) you would be hard pressed to find Banach space in a physical dictionary. Firstly the term consists of two words and secondly paper dictionaries have limitations due to targeting specific sizes as Merriam-Webster addresses when talking about physical dictionary publications. However, on their website where I was searching, space restrictions are really not a factor and a wide assortment of terminology and words can be included.

This brings up an important issue concerning selectiveness as dictionaries transition to becoming online entities. Vernacular terms such as swole or fleek are not present in the dictionary yet Banach space is. For some additional perspective, a Google search of fleek yielded 2,410,000 results while Banach space yielded 915,000 results. Therefore I think the conclusion can be drawn that usage is somewhat subjective. Usage may encompass more than frequency and also take into consideration a subjective evaluation of the applicability in various contexts. I state it as “subjective” since frequency of usage seems to be the best uniform, unbiased measure of unofficial words. How does one compare fleek to Banach space? Is there such thing as one being more credible than the other?

I believe this is a result of a continued segregation of vernacular and intellectual terminology. Firstly, editors can find a term like Banach space within formal literature that they clearly indicate as part of their reading diet. However, a term like fleek appears on informal website articles as well as social media; these are probably not included in the editors’ reading diet for citations. Therefore vernacular terms may have a harder time entering dictionaries. This highlights an important point. Dictionaries consider words placed in published literature.The word tweet has made it into the Merriam-Webster dictionary probably due to the fact that Twitter activity has become of concern to tabloids as well as academics. From this I gather that new words introduced to formal publications are the main focus of dictionary editors. Ironically, some of the same discrimination towards vernacular terminology from Enlightenment times still exists, which to different people can be evaluated as a positive or negative outcome. Defining usage is definitely not without some level of subjectivity.

The featured image is Algebra Pure & Applied by Papantonopoulou and Capital: Volume III by Karl Marx, laid atop my desk. Both of those contain the introduction of numerous academic terms that later became dictionary entries.

5 comments on “Who Makes Words?

  1. iggy23 says:

    This post was technical in so many ways! I find that nowadays, many words are finding their way into our lexicon rather easily. And many of these words, like selfie, twerk, and bouncebackability (haha) are, at first sight, ridiculous. But I think what we’re all forgetting is that each and every word that we see on a regular basis could have been something peculiar or out of the ordinary when it was first suggested for a place in the dictionary. Sure, we find these made up words simplistic and lacking in linguistic sense sometimes but I think that it’s nice to see that in our modern age, we’re still adding to the vocabulary and that’s something special to me.

    So to your question of who makes words. I guess it’s just something anyone can do and if it sounds and feels right, in it goes into the dictionary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • royyman32 says:

      You make a really solid point. Also, bouncebackability is an awesome find by the way. I agree with your definition of who makes words. It’s a communal effort really since all kinds of peculiar phrases appear from time to time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. abyssbrain says:

    In the past, Latin is the language of the scientific community as well. There were many great scientists back then whose great works were ridiculed and not taken seriously due to their inability to publish scientific papers in Latin…

    Liked by 1 person

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