Meet the Editors: New Words
My name is Fiona and I am responsible for putting amazeballs in the OED.
When you tell people you are a lexicographer and are responsible for putting new words into the OED, it invariably leads to further questions. What’s that? What do you actually do? How do you find these words? How do you know what a word means? Do you ever make any up? Have you got a favourite word? Does this mean you always win at Scrabble?
Here’s my effort at answering some of these and other Frequently Asked Questions.
What do new words editors do, and what does your day to day look like?
The short, unhelpful answer is “put new words into the dictionary”. But, in essence, that is precisely what we do. We prepare entries for words that haven’t yet found their way into the OED. A typical day will start with a suggestion for a word and it’s then my job to make an entry for it. Sometimes the word will be familiar; other times it won’t. I’ll compose a definition and illustrate this with a set of quotations which show the typical usage of the word in question. As the OED is a historical dictionary, our aim to track down the first example of the word in English. If the word is still current, I’ll include a phonetic transcription for both British and US English (the spoken pronunciations that you hear on the OED website are added at a later stage), and while I might attempt to give a basic etymology, my colleagues who are experts in that area will take over that aspect.
And then it’s on to something completely different.
Do you think there are any common misconceptions about your job or anything about it that might surprise people?
The biggest misconception is probably that by including a new word in the OED, the word becomes “a real word” and has some kind of official status. That’s not the case. By including any word in the OED, we are saying that this is a term that is used by people and has made its mark on the language. It was still a word before inclusion, but its existence is now more formally recorded.
I’m often asked, too, whether we all get together on a Monday morning and vote on which words are going to be included that week and which aren’t, but that is not the case.
I think it often surprises people that some of the new words we work on are very familiar and not really that new. New doesn’t mean brand new; it simply means new to the OED.
Where do suggestions for new words come from?
Suggestions come from a variety of different places and we are able to keep track of them electronically. We have Reading Programmes that are intended to find instances of new words and senses, and it forms an in-house corpus that we can search to find multiple instances of words which are not yet included. We also have access to many external corpora and databases which we can interrogate, and of course many suggestions are sent in by the public. This has been happening since the days of the first editors; all that has changed is the medium.
Editors will also suggest words themselves. Doing this job means you are always aware of the words people are using or that you come across in your “down time”. Many’s the day that I go to document a new word I have heard, and I find a colleague has got there before me.
How do you track down the first example of a word?
We have access to a large number of external databases as well as our own internal ones. That means that I can access a Wyoming newspaper from 1953 one minute, and the next some fiction written in the early noughties, all without leaving my desk. It’s a case of searching, searching, and then searching some more. Technology and the internet have undoubtedly made this part easier, but by the same token there is so much more out there than we can possibly always have access to. Some words set a marker for you in that they cannot be earlier than a particular date due to the kind of term they are, or the subject area they come from. And many times a suggestion will come bolstered with some evidence of the word in use, which gives you a jumping off point. And the paper slips that have been collected by the OED over the last century and beyond are still invaluable to us. It is by far the most time-consuming part of the process, but arguably the most satisfying. You get a real sense of achievement when you track down that early usage that you knew had to be out there.
Apart from a handful of cases, there is always the possibility that an earlier example can be found. That is part of the reason that we launched the M-R antedating initiative. That part of the alphabet was revised, and new words added, before we had access to many of the resources that are now our first port of call. Who knows how that will change in the next 10 years. The OED is very much an ongoing research project.
How do you find out what a word means?
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes a word will be familiar. But in any case, all the research carried out to find those quotations to show the word in usage means that we see numerous examples of the word in context and it’s the context that is key to understanding the meaning. Think back to one’s school days and doing reading comprehension; there were always questions asking you about the meanings of unfamiliar words and you had to read the context to glean the meaning. You apply the same principle here. It’s also important that even if you think you know what a word means, you must read and evaluate the evidence. I’ve had to change or expand my initial thoughts on what a term meant after researching it thoroughly.
How do you decide if a new word will enter the dictionary?
It’s all about the evidence. A word is included in the OED if there is sufficient evidence that it is used. Typically, we’d expect to have evidence going back five years, but this is a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. If a word has evidence spanning five years, the chances are it’s got staying power. Even words which seem brand new can be older than you first think. As a verb, staycation dates back to the late 2000s, but as a noun it was been around since the 1940s; both have come to prominence in the last year or so.
Some words will make their mark quicker. A good example is COVID-19. We added that in 2020 in a special update, a mere 2 months after its coinage (and this was one of the relatively rare instances where we know that we have the very first example). It is such an important word, and the evidence for it so overwhelming that it made its case for inclusion very quickly.
Are more new words appearing now than ever before?
It’s hard to give a definitive answer on this. It’s safe to say we are aware of new words more quickly than previously. The internet and social media, as well as 24-hour television, means that the ability for a new word to reach all over the globe is astonishing. It might just be that we happen upon them more quickly than before rather than there actually being more. Innovations and events bring about a surge in new coinages, and there plenty of those throughout history. But the communications of the times would have affected just how quickly the information would disseminate. Put it this way – if people stopped coining new words right this minute, I don’t think I or my colleagues would run out of work for a very long time.
Do you have a favourite word that you have worked on in the past?
That’s a tricky one. Sometimes a really difficult word can be the most rewarding when you really feel like you have got the definition just right, but whether I would want to say that was my favourite I am not sure. It’s fun to work on words that people instantly recognize and are surprised have made it into the OED (see my earlier point about “official” words). I think one of the most satisfying set of words I worked on was new senses of the word run. There were lots of them, and it took a while, but I felt a great sense of achievement working on it. But then I also got a big kick when I added the Scottish colloquialism bawheid.
Can you tell us about some of the words you are monitoring?
For every new word that we put into the OED, there are countless others waiting in the wings, and that is an important part of the process. Some will be just too new; others will not have enough evidence. Yet. Just because a word hasn’t met the threshold at the moment doesn’t mean it won’t at some time in the future. And when a word begins to be used more, we can take a fresh look. It’s never the end of the road. There have been numerous coinages to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. Some are serious, some less so. Some will be ephemeral, some will stick.
What is the most challenging part of your job? What’s the most difficult word you’ve ever worked on and why?
It sounds like a cliché, but every word brings its own challenges and difficulties – even one which seems easy at first glance. Words in subject areas that you know a lot about can sometimes cause you to overthink how much information is really necessary in the definition. Economics terms are always ones that I personally find tricky, but luckily we are able to call on consultants to help with those.
How many editors at the OED work specifically on new words, and how do you work together?
Altogether there are 9 editors working on New Words, out of approximately 70 OED editors in total. It’s very much a collaborative approach with different editorial passes. Anything that one editor drafts is always reviewed by a colleague and that’s an important part of the job. Sometimes you are struggling with getting just the right word and a colleague can immediately see what that word is. Or there may be other improvements that can be made. Lexicography is often a solitary job but is also very much a team effort. It means that my proclamation that I was the person who put amazeballs in the OED isn’t quite accurate.
And for the record, my favourite word is mondegreen, I don’t ever make any words up, and no, I don’t always win at Scrabble.
Further reading suggestions:
Meet the Editors: Danica Salazar
Meet the Editors: Katherine Connor Martin
Meet the Editors: Catherine Sangster
Revising the OED: the revision of bear, n.1
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.