Dictionary accepts a few good words

Choices: Those who created the newest edition of Webster's donned `cargo pants' but hung up on `ringtone.'

August 11, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Seeking more street cred (n. popularity with or acceptance by the common people), Webster's New World College Dictionary has added almost 80 new words and definitions, an update that reflects the nation's current obsessions, from Al Qaeda and WMD on one hand to Botox and LASIK on the other.

The 1,700-page dictionary is updated every year, as editors try to keep pace with a constantly evolving language and include what they deem the breakout (adj. achieving, resulting in, or characterized by sudden or unexpected success or popularity) words of the new millennium.

"We really think we owe it to the reader to change it every year," said Michael Agnes, editor-in-chief of Webster's New World. "Language reflects society and human endeavor, so [the dictionary] reflects changes in those very broad areas."

Some of the words reflect the charged political and global landscape of the past several years. Militant organizations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban, are now in the dictionary. On the domestic front, civil union (n. a legally recognized marriage-like union of same-sex partners) and faith-based (adj. affiliated with or sponsored by a church or other religious organization) made the cut.

Agnes said that as American society has become more consumerist, new words related to food and fashion have gained currency. This year's update adds shiraz and syrah (n. a red grape grown esp. in the Rhone Valley in France, now also in the U.S. and Australia). Also added is cargo pants (n. loosefitting, casual pants having a number of capacious pockets).

"Language encodes cultural properties," said David W. Lightfoot, assistant director of the National Science Foundation and former linguistics professor and dean at Georgetown University. He said a key function of a dictionary is explaining words and phrases bubbling up through the culture.

"You don't need dictionaries to tell you the meanings of words you know," Lightfoot said. "You're looking up words that are not part of your experience and which encode this more or less exotic information."

Lots of reading

To keep tabs on the language, Webster's has a staff of two citators and eight editors who pore over newspapers, magazines, novels and nonfiction books, as well as listen to radio and watch television, always on the lookout for new words. Every new word, new spelling or new meaning is indexed on a computer. The staff averages 1,500 new entries per month.

For words to be included in the dictionary, three criteria are considered: How long has the word been around? (A minimum of three years is typical.) How widely is it used? (It must show up in mainstream sources, not just obscure journals.) And how frequently does it appear?

"Frequency is a useful criterion because the dictionary is supposed to help readers understand language they encounter," Agnes said. But he doesn't want to include words that seem faddish and might disappear. For that reason, the following words did not make the cut this year:

Ringtone (specialized rings for cell phones);

Netizen (a user of the Internet);

Asiago (a popular type of cheese);

Amber Alert (a bulletin put out for missing children);

TiVo, as a verb (to record a TV show on a digital recorder).

But should those words hang around, they will be strong candidates for inclusion next year. No words were dropped from the dictionary this year, though that does occasionally happen. Some time ago, Webster's dropped copacetic (adj. good, excellent, fine, etc.) - a big mistake.

"We took it out and, sure enough, it had a resurgence, and it went back in," Agnes said, "and we're not taking it out again."

Slow to add chad

Some linguists say dictionaries should strive for greater currency. Just with this year's update, now trickling into bookstores, did Webster's New World get around to including chad (n. any of the bits of paper that are separated from a punch card in the process of making the holes in it), which gained infamy in the 2000 presidential election.

"Adding chad right now is five years out of date," said Bert Vaux, a professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. "I believe a lot of dictionaries try to avoid using ephemeral words - words that they strongly suspect will come and go quickly. But as a linguist, I want to know what words have been and are being used."

Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, said dictionaries are his first point of reference when considering whether to include words in his puzzles. But they're not the final arbiter.

"I have a whole list of words that have never appeared in any dictionary, ever," he said. "It's not that they're obscure, but dictionaries just overlook them."

On Shortz's list of overlooked words or phrases: neatnik, bounciness, tiramisu, rim shot, steelyard, fuzzy navel and Uey - as in making a U-turn. While he often gets complaints from readers when answers aren't in the dictionary, Shortz says he understands that dictionaries have to draw the line somewhere.

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