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Actually this dictionary database is built from Users contribution. Peter Sokolowski, a Merriam-Webster editor-at-large, said that people who compile and edit a dictionary are also referred to as lexicographers. As editors, his team members, who work on the online and print versions of the dictionary, take on a lot of reading.
Nowadays, of course, editors also have online material to read ― not only social media posts but also online news sources and databases of historic documents. Sokolowski said that the addition of online reading has, in some ways, made a dictionary editor’s job easier.
“We can find so much more,” he said. “I wouldn’t go back. I’m just old enough that I started here writing the dictionary before there were any computers. There was only one computer on the editorial floor … It was for keeping pay stubs and time keep.”
Similar to Merriam-Webster’s editorial program, Oxford English Dictionary has a team dedicated to reading a variety of publications (in print and online) and identifying new words. With help from this team and her own research, Fiona McPherson, a senior editor for the dictionary’s new words group, decides which words should be added to the dictionary.
“Each day starts with me looking at a suggestion for a word that isn’t yet in the Oxford English Dictionary, and my job is then to research and evaluate the evidence for the word,” she said via email. “Every word included in the Oxford English Dictionary has to pass the criteria for length and breadth of usage, and I ascertain this by looking on a number of databases to find examples of the word in use.”She also is responsible for writing the word’s “all-important definition,” she said.
“This can be challenging in a number of ways; getting to the heart of a term with which you are familiar can be just as difficult as describing something unfamiliar,” she wrote.
So how does a word get added to the dictionary? Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have a few tests that a word must pass. The dictionary teams make sure it has widespread use in a variety of publications. (It can’t be repeatedly used by only one writer to be considered.) It also has to have long-term use or show promise that it will stick around and stand the test of time. Sokolowski said Merriam-Webster deliberately uses the vague phrase “long-term use” because in the digital age, words can meet this criterion much more quickly than before.
“In the old days, it used to be decades. It would take time,” he said. “But I think ‘blog’ was in the dictionary within four years of its coinage. Also true for the word ‘AIDS’ in the 1980s for the same reason. It was very clear that it was a word that was going to stay that was in the news all the time, a word that we needed in our dictionary and a word that didn’t exist just a few years earlier. There is no easy answer [what long-term use means]. Every single word has its own pace.”Some recently added terms include “binge-watch,” “clickbait” and “photobomb.” Sokolowski noted that the dictionary also must keep up with changing meanings of words. For example, Merriam-Webster added a definition of “bandwidth,” for the sense of “ability to take on a task.”
Merriam-Webster also requires words to have meaningful use and a general agreement on what they mean. This is why, he said, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary doesn’t include “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which seemingly satisfies the widespread and long-term use criteria but not meaningful use. The word “irregardless,” however, is included in the dictionary, with a note to use “regardless” instead, because above all, the editors want to be useful and make people aware of how words are being used, Sokolowski said.
Becoming a dictionary editor doesn’t necessarily mean having studied words or literature in school. At Merriam-Webster, editors have a variety of backgrounds. Sokolowski said it’s important to have editors with expertise in physics, music, literature, art history and more so entries can be as accurate as possible.