Word Matters Podcast

New Words in the Dictionary, January 2021

Word Matters, Episode 25

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Language never rests, and neither do we. In January 2021, Merriam-Webster added 520 new words and definitions to the dictionary. In this special episode, editors Emily Brewster and Peter Sokolowski break down the new additions.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: new words. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: At Merriam-Webster, we're constantly defining new words and revising the entries for existing words to keep up with the language as it grows ever bigger. But because a dictionary is like a big ship, hard to steer and involving the efforts of many people, we release a set of updates all at once. The most recent set of updates recently went live. And in this episode, Peter Sokolowski and I give the inside scoop on the changes it brings. The dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com just got a little bit bigger, and it's always fun when we have a new update to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary to talk about the words that have been added.

Emily Brewster: Now, some people think that we can just add words at any given time, that a definer can draft a definition, there can be a final version of it, and it just goes right up into the dictionary, and it is instantly available for people to look at and to look up. But that's not how we do things at all, because there are implications from one entry to another entry, and there are also multiple editors who have to play a part in the finalization and in the creation of any particular entry. So we do these things in batches. We will set a deadline, and then we do as much work as we can before the deadline, and then everything that was able to be accomplished before that deadline goes live in what we call a release. And so we are just having a new release at this point, as we do several times a year.

Peter Sokolowski: This used to be a slower process because we would wait for printings, and so this was more connected to the print schedule. But there's no reason to wait for the print schedule anymore, because as we are working all day everyday on the dictionary entries, why hold them back, in a sense? Once they are all organized, as Emily just said, this is a version control problem to the nth degree, connecting entries with other entries, making sure that they are carefully researched and have the backing that's necessary and go through all of the same mechanical process that adding new terms and new meanings of terms to the dictionary has always involved. But we still can put them up on the schedule that allows us to make them available to the public much more regularly and more quickly.

Emily Brewster: To sketch out in a little more detail how it works, a general definer, like me or like you, will draft a definition, put it in a document, and then other editors will look at it. Usually a copy editor and also a final reader will look at it. And then there is a pronunciation editor who will, if it's a new term, give it a new pronunciation. And then there is the etymologist who will write the etymology for the term. There is a person who researches the date, the earliest known use that the word has. There are also cross-reference editors who will make sure that if there's a "see also" or a "called also" at the entry, that that will go to the right place, that any word that is used in a definition is also defined in the dictionary itself because a dictionary is necessarily a gigantic circular document.

So there are all these different people who have a hand in making in ensuring that the definition does everything that it needs to do. So again, they're all working as hard as they can and as fast as they can. We do these things in batches because it simply doesn't make sense for each person to just focus on, oh, let's everybody work on this new word, and then everybody work on this other new word.

Peter Sokolowski: And also these batches aren't necessarily just slices of the alphabet. That could be one way that we do it. We could conceivably move through the alphabet, but that doesn't actually match the illogical way in which the language grows. The language is going to grow in its own way at its own pace. Words are going to come into use at their own pace, and in my experience, every word has its own speed. Some words you might think of as being brand new to the language. Some you might've heard for a number of years, but are finally entered into the dictionary. But what they have in common is that they have finally crossed a certain threshold of usage. That is to say, that you're likely to encounter this word, that many people have used it in many publications, and now it's time to add it to the dictionary. That is a little bit subjective, but mostly objective. And I do like to mention the kind of mechanical research that goes into adding terms to the dictionary. We notice words. And then we look for those words to come back again and again and again to get that accumulated evidence that we require. But again, these new terms don't come in neatly packaged alphabetical, a little envelopes.

Emily Brewster: Different words take different amounts of time to qualify for entry. But sometimes there are categories of words like in March of 2020, which was the release that we announced most recently to the one we're announcing now. We had a new release and it was an unscheduled release because there was a group of vocabulary that had qualified for entry very quickly and needed to be defined right away, and we realized that we could do this. So we did it. And that batch of words included the word that went most rapidly from coinage to dictionary entry that any word has ever gone.

Peter Sokolowski: And that word, of course, is COVID-19, a term that had never been heard by anybody just 35 days before it was entered into the dictionary. And that is an all-time speed record. And it's really hard. People say, "How long does it take for a word to get into the dictionary?" Could be six or ten or 60 years, it depends, but it was always measured in years until now. And in fact, the fastest a word ever entered a Merriam-Webster dictionary before COVID-19 gives us a little perspective. It was the word AIDS, and that was added in 1984 and two years after its coinage. Again, we're talking about a print schedule. So it was a slower process. And so two years seemed like light speed, but it was clear at the time that this was a word that was important, that it was here to stay. It was also, as with COVID-19, particularly important to understand, particularly important to be in the dictionary. It's the kind of technical word that really needs a definition, not a slang term or something new that might come and then go out of fashion. This was a word that was here to stay. And 34 days from the coinage and the announcement by the World Health Organization to entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, partly because of technology, of course, because we can make these releases digitally now. And also our science defining staff were on it. They were working on these terms. They had already updated coronavirus and SARS and MERS and a handful of other terms that were related to COVID-19.

Emily Brewster: It's interesting to note that as this pandemic continues to have this effect on the entire world, that the language is continuing to respond to this. And in this new release that we are announcing today, there are also words that have come to the fore because of COVID-19, because of this particular coronavirus. For example, long-hauler. A long-hauler has a COVID-specific meaning, "a person who experiences one or more long-term effects following initial improvement or recovery from a serious illness such as COVID-19." So this term doesn't only exist about COVID-19, but this use of the word has just recently qualified for entry because of its prominent use in talking about the way that some people experience COVID-19.

Peter Sokolowski: And there are a couple of other terms that we might've understood before this crisis, but have maybe a more specific usage, like the words pod and bubble. Especially if you are, for example, in a family situation or in a small school group, there's lots of ways that these terms have become suddenly very specific. And so that specificity requires a new definition. Obviously bubble had been in the dictionary and pod had been in the dictionary, but in the case of bubble, for example, an area within which sports teams stay isolated from the general public during a series of scheduled games so as to prevent exposure to disease, and that includes accommodations, amenities, and the location at which the games are held. I mean, that's a term that we heard a lot, especially in the context of basketball for example.

Emily Brewster: There also is another new sense of bubble that is synonymous with pod. And that is the one you first referred to.

Peter Sokolowski: A usually small group of people, such as family members, friends, co-workers, classmates, who regularly interact closely with one another, but with few or no others in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection during an outbreak of a contagious disease. And so those are two brand new definitions that are written kind of custom-made for this moment.

Emily Brewster: I really like how this is one of the ways that the language expanded the word pod evokes an animal like a pod of whales, and bubble also. They're both such friendly, accessible words. And I think it's interesting that this was an expansion that the English language decided to make, or that its speakers felt was a natural way to expand the language, to make these words, pod and bubble, to make them do this job of referring to this collection of people that we rely on to keep ourselves safe and to keep other people safe. I think it's a fascinating expansion. And again, something people like to think about the new words that lexicographers add to dictionaries that so often, it's just a new sense of an existing word, because as we have talked about many times on Word Matters, the words don't stay put, they keep shifting, they keep expanding, they take on new meanings and they drop old meanings. So that is just a huge part of lexicography.

Emily Brewster: Now another new term that is related to COVID-19, it is new to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary, but it's not a brand new term, but it became newly prominent. So this is a word that just qualified for entry, and that is wet market. We define it as a market that sells perishable items, such as fresh meat and produce, and sometimes live animals, which are often slaughtered on-site. So the term wet market, again, not a brand new term, but a term that people were not coming across in their regular reading. They weren't hearing it on the radio just a year ago or so.

Peter Sokolowski: It certainly was new to me and probably to a lot of other people, but not brand new to the language.

Emily Brewster: Happily, not all of the new words that we have added are about the coronavirus. It's nice that there are other things going on in our world, but I feel like the next category of words also is still really about the time because they focus on digital communication. Human interaction in person has been so limited in the past year. So, these terms that are really about how we communicate with one another online have become more prominent, and so they have recently qualified for entry.

Peter Sokolowski: They connect to how we live, how we're going to school, how we're conducting business, how we're working. We're working so much more online. In a sense, everything up to a year ago was a rehearsal for this kind of working from home, remote working, but also these terms that have to do with online existence, like reaction gif is one of the new terms.

Emily Brewster: You can also say reaction gif if you really want to.

Peter Sokolowski: I think I'm in camp gif.

Emily Brewster: I am too.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. A gif of someone or something such as a celebrity or an animal that is sent or posted in reply to something, such as a text message or a social media post or comment, that typically depicts and expresses a reaction. And it's part of online life at this point and certainly a part of texting.

Emily Brewster: There's also the term @, and we label it as informal and it means "to respond to a challenge or disparage the claim or opinion of someone, usually used in the phrase 'Don't @ me.'"

Peter Sokolowski: Don't @ me.

Emily Brewster: And this is one that started on Twitter, of course, because on Twitter you will @ someone by writing their Twitter handle, their Twitter tag, and people will say, "Don't @ me. If you want to comment, fine. Make your comment about what I'm saying, but don't tag me in it." I think that's how it started, really, and then now it has been expanded to this meaning of, "Leave me alone. Don't criticize me. Don't give me any trouble because I have said something you don't like."

Peter Sokolowski: And this arch ironic tone that people who are online a lot have adopted in communication. And that's something that kind of runs ahead of language and runs ahead of a lot of the culture too. And it can be hard to understand some of these things. And imagine sometimes explaining this phenomenon to someone who isn't on line all the time. In a sense that's kind of where the dictionary is. We are a little bit behind, but in point of fact, we're always kind of looking in the rear view mirror of the language. The dictionary has to be a lag indicator. We're measuring important terms that have already come into use. We're not inventing new words. I think sometimes people think that that's what we do, but that's not at all what we do. We're reporting, almost like a journalist does, reporting on the facts of usage.

Emily Brewster: With @, we had an article on our website about this word. We've been monitoring this use of @ for some time now for several years, and really just waiting for it to reach a wider audience, to be used more widely because we don't enter terms that are only specific to Twitter. We don't enter terms that only appear in one particular social media platform. That doesn't really make sense. Those words are not fully established. They're still words, we're not saying they're not words, but they have not yet met our criteria for entry in the Merriam-Webster.om dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Now, a couple other words that we have that are also about our digital communication have political and cultural significance. One is cancel culture. This is a term that is incredibly hot right now, hot being, it is such an important term. It is being used a lot in public discourse. We define cancel culture as "the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure." So cancel culture is a new term to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Another one, digital blackface. This is the use by white people of digital depictions of Black or brown people or skin tones, especially for the purpose of self-representation or self-expression. So this term is pointing at a behavior that didn't have a name before this term was coined to describe it.

Peter Sokolowski: And like cancel culture, it's what we call a compound. It's made up of two other words that are also defined in the dictionary. But when these two words are used together, their usage is so specific, and so consistently specific, that it gets its own entry and its own definition. And then the same is true for hard pass, a firm refusal or rejection of something such as an offer. And that's something that you see in responses on social media, quite a lot, that kind of language. And maybe it's partly because so much of the language of social media is evolving in a way that is a written form before it's a spoken form. If you were having a conversation, you might have another way of saying that, "No way," or "I refuse." But hard pass is an emphatic way in writing on social media to emphasize your point. Again, two words that obviously had their own definitions, but when used together, they mean something very specific.

Emily Brewster: I really like hard pass. It's a very efficient way of rejecting something. And I too first encountered it online. I won't be surprised if and when, and I probably have heard it in conversation, but it definitely feels like it's more at home in written communication. I so frequently think about how much more written communication there is in general in our lives. It is huge. Another word that, and this is not a compound, but a single term that is newly added that I really like, is flex. We label it informal, and we define it as "an act of bragging or showing off." And I first encountered this in the phrase, "Weird flex, but okay."

Peter Sokolowski: Same with me. That's how I encountered it. In fact, that's almost the only usage that I'm really familiar with, but it needed obviously a definition. Again, a word that was in the dictionary, flex meaning a bend or something, but this is so specific to online life. Another term is performative, which we label as disapproving, "made or done for show as to bolster one's own image or make a positive impression on others." Fascinating term that did exist in the language with specific linguistic meanings, but here an online meaning, one that has to do with social media and perhaps with activism or clicktivism of some kind. There's a kind of authenticity that is challenged when this term is invoked.

Emily Brewster: And it exists in the meat space as they call it sometimes. Yes, it's performative acts online are very easily called out. They're very easily identified as being performative. Nobody aims to be performative in their activism, in their posting about something that they've done or that they are into, but it gets labeled by somebody else as being performative. And so the online engagement is perfect for assessing the words of those around us for better and much worse sometimes.

Peter Sokolowski: Now another category of terms that we've grouped together have to do with changes in the way we work, which have to do with working at home, of course, but working online, working remotely. There are terms that are associated with this, sometimes called the gig economy, which had already been in a dictionary fairly recently added, but this sort of connectedness, this idea of places or new times that we work. A term like coworking, which I was familiar with only recently in the past few years, meaning being relating to or working in a building where multiple tenants, such as startups or non-profits, rent working space, such as desks or offices, and have the use of communal facilities. So kind of a workspace. And that was kind of new to me just a few years ago. And I'm not surprised that it's now coming into the dictionary. Now, maybe at this moment, coworking isn't such a big phenomenon because of the pandemic, but it's something that is here for real and here to stay.

Emily Brewster: Well, we're seeing increasing use of the term talking about what happens after the pandemic, as all these companies have realized that they can have workers work remotely. We're seeing more and more evidence of the word coworking because people are talking about the next stage being that instead of people commuting an hour to go to an office, that they can work in a coworking space because their company now recognizes that they can work remotely.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. That allows them to have a very short commute and still have a place to go. And it might also mean that some companies don't even have a physical structure, have a building, because they have employees working in their different locations. It makes sense. It's a logical evolution of the way professional work keeps on, but there's another term like makerspace, which may be less professional. It may be more amateur in some ways, a communal public workshop in which makers can work on small personal projects. So it could be crafts or arts, but makerspace is a very specific compound term.

Emily Brewster: And that's another one that we've been watching for a few years. And it's just now met this criteria for entry. The benefits, of course, of a communal public workshop, where also you can share equipment. It's an idea that makes a lot of sense. Crowdfunding is an interesting one. I wasn't the definer who defined this. And my first thought on seeing it in our list of words that we were adding was, "Oh, isn't that kind of old?" It's actually not very old. We had already defined crowdsourcing, but crowdfunding is a term that has very quickly taken such an important role in the language that it feels like it's old and established like, ah, hasn't that been around for 15 years? And no, I think it's about five and maybe even less than that, four or five. But crowdfunding we define as "the practice of obtaining needed funding as for a new business, by soliciting contributions from a large number of people, especially from the online community." Now we also, in the era of COVID-19, we are seeing people also crowdfunding for medical expenses. That's a context the word is increasingly prominent in.

Peter Sokolowski: And I see it that way all the time. And this is a case that reminds me of the little aphorism by the linguist David Crystal, who says, "Familiarity breeds content." What he means by that is, this word has been so quickly adopted and so universally used, that it does feel old, it does feel comfortable. Part of it is because of the echo of crowdsourcing, which is a little bit older, but crowdfunding. And also because some words simply work. In other words, there's a mechanism that we use this term, and it so clearly expresses what it expresses. And again, two words that were otherwise defined by themselves, but put them together, and boy, that specificity really kind of rings true to the moment. And again, this is how the language evolves.

Emily Brewster: The best marker for a word success in the language is that it feel natural.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: That it makes sense. We also entered two terms that are very clearly connected to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. The word decarceration, we define it as "released from imprisonment, also the practice or policy of reducing the number of people subject to imprisonment." And along with that, a new addition to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary is prison industrial complex, the profit-driven relationship between the government, the private companies that build, manage, supply, and service prisons, and related groups, such as prison industry unions and lobbyists, regarded as the cause of increased incarceration rates, especially of poor people and minorities and often for nonviolent crimes. I just want to sit with that definition for a minute because it's a very dense definition, and it is very particularly pointing at an issue because that is what the term is about. So the prison industrial complex is not a term that people who work in prisons would want to use. It has this context that talks about the word's function socially, because that is part of the word's meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: It has this echo with that term that I believe Eisenhower coined, the military industrial complex. And so there's this resonance in the culture to this term, but this one, again, has this connection with the activism that has to do with unfair practices and sort of a cultural examination of what this really means for all of us.

Emily Brewster: Also terms of identity in the English language has been expanding for a few decades now. And every release that we have, it seems there are new terms of identity that have been added this time. We added BIPOC, B-I-P-O-C, all caps. It's an abbreviation. It means "Black, Indigenous, and then in parentheses, and, People of Color," because this abbreviation is used in multiple ways. Sometimes it is glossed as "Black Indigenous People of Color." And sometimes it is glossed as "Black, Indigenous, and People of Color." And so as a dictionary, as lexicographers, we write definitions that reflect actual usage. So we are not weighing in on one of these glosses for this abbreviation being better or worse or real or not real. The fact is that both of these glosses are established as meanings of this abbreviation.

Another new term is folks spelled folx, spelled F-O-L-X. And we define it as the word folks, F-O-L-K-S, with this usage note, "used especially to explicitly signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized." This is an interesting word because the word folks is already gender neutral. It already is an inclusive term. "Hey, folks," that means all the people who were in whatever space it is that you're addressing. But the word folx with an X, that X is evocative of the honorific mx., M-X, and also of Latinx, and a number of other words that are using this word X that is explicitly about gender and about being inclusive of all genders. And in this case, it's used even more broadly to signal the inclusion of all kinds of people and explicitly of people who are commonly marginalized.

Peter Sokolowski: I mean, isn't that kind of an amazing, subtle nuance that English allows, that we can say this word, that we're comfortable with it, we're familiar with it. We would all understand and now add this little wrinkle, this important acknowledgement, just by spelling it differently. Phonetically of course it's the same. It's kind of an amazing innovation.

Emily Brewster: And actually that distinction is so fascinating to me that we are now, in the language, we are making distinctions that can only be noted in written language. You cannot hear a difference between folx and folks. You cannot, especially not in a running conversation. There's no way to actually efficiently speak and say and make a distinction with those. But so much of our communication is written now that this alternate version of this word can take on a distinct meaning and function as a full member of the language.

Peter Sokolowski: You're referring to the kind of primacy of the written word, which is amazing. Even for BIPOC, that's a term that I have to say, I haven't heard spoken out loud a whole lot, but I've seen it very frequently because we consume so much through our feeds, through scrolling, through reading, but not necessarily through speech.

Emily Brewster: Another term of identity, sapiosexual. This means "of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to highly intelligent people." I'm sure we have so many sapiosexuals who listen to our podcast.

Peter Sokolowski: We've been aware of this for a number of years, but it's still relatively new to the language and that sapio-, that great sort of classical route that identifies you as someone who makes this kind of distinction.

Emily Brewster: Sapio- means?

Peter Sokolowski: "Having sound judgment." Sapiens is the root of Homo sapiens as well; "rational, wise, having sound judgment" in Latin. We use the term sapient.

Emily Brewster: Sapient is also just an obscure synonym of intelligence or wise.

Peter Sokolowski: This term we date to 2004. So pretty new to the language, but brand new to the dictionary.

Emily Brewster: I remember looking at this word and just assessing the evidence for this word a few years ago, because I was aware of it and I was working on other terms having to do with this kind of identity. And I was surprised at how little evidence we had for it. So it now has met our criteria for entry, but really just two, three, four years ago, it had not, even though it existed. Again, we need to see that a word is widely enough used that people are likely to encounter it. That is our criteria for dictionary entry. Another term, kind of identity, is maybe lots of people claim silver fox as their identity. I don't know. We define silver fox as "an attractive middle-aged man having mostly gray or white hair." I think it's a funny term.

Peter Sokolowski: I think it's a term used of others more than of themselves.

Emily Brewster: Does George Clooney identify as a silver fox? Who knows?

Peter Sokolowski: Who knows? It's a term that is used to refer to others in this way. It's kind of fun.

Emily Brewster: Another term for a man in our list is the term Second Gentleman, which means "the husband or male partner of a vice-president or second-in-command of a country or jurisdiction." As of this recording, the United States is about to get its first national Second Gentleman. There are governors, there are states that have a Second Gentleman. But the term Second Gentleman has been just hardly used at all. So the evidence of it has been very scant, but now we will have Doug Emhoff moving with Kamala Harris into the vice president's residency. And he is the new Second Gentleman and the first Second Gentleman.

Peter Sokolowski: The first Second Gentleman. That's quite a distinction and a classic example of vocabulary that we need. The language has to evolve to accommodate. And of course it's an official term. Do we capitalize it?

Emily Brewster: We do.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. So that styling shows that that's the way it's usually seen if you see it in a newspaper or a magazine or something, because it's like a title.

Emily Brewster: It's like First Lady, Second Gentleman.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. And finally, we have a group of words that sort of just make us feel good. One of these is a term from a Scandinavian language, and I'm saying this sort of embarrassed. I'm not sure I know how to say it. The word that's spelled H-Y-G-G-E.

Emily Brewster: I think that our pronunciation of it is hygge.

Peter Sokolowski: Hygge.

Emily Brewster: We give multiple pronunciations. And what does it mean?

Peter Sokolowski: Hygge is "a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable." I first noticed it a few years ago, people having hygge parties and just being cozy and comfortable and kind of self care. It does sound perfect. Another term that refers to feeling good or good feelings, sensations, psychological or physical, but maybe without the approval of your doctor, entheogen. We define it as "a psychoactive, hallucinogenic substance or preparation, such as psilocybin or ayahuasca, especially when derived from plants or fungi, and used in religious, spiritual, or ritualistic contexts." The term itself has sort of Greek classical resonance, and it does connect to the word hallucinogen, from the Greek word entheos, meaning "possessed by a God" or "inspired." So a fascinating word history from the Greek for entheogen.

Emily Brewster: This was not a term that I had been watching, although I feel like I've been reading about it, but this is a term defined by one of our science definers.

Peter Sokolowski: I want to say it was a New Yorker article of someone's experience with ayahuasca, which is associated, I believe, with parts of Central/South America and a fascinating and sometimes terrifying kind of experience.

Emily Brewster: Now, another term that does not require any kind of hallucinogenic substance is ASMR, or in its expanded form, autonomous sensory meridian response. This refers to a pleasant tingling sensation that originates on the back of the scalp and often spreads to the neck and upper spine that occurs in some people in response to a stimulus, such as a particular kind of sound or movement and that tends to have a calming effect. And there are, on YouTube, all kinds of ASMR videos that people like to watch to get the calming effect that this sensation brings.

Peter Sokolowski: It sounds very physical, very much connected to touch.

Emily Brewster: I think it's more typically though, as the definition says, more typically about sound or movement. There are a number of sounds that are common triggers for this sensation.

Peter Sokolowski: Fascinating. And of course we have many, many, many new senses in words that are added in every new batch, every new release to the dictionary, but these are just a handful to get us started to keep us thinking about what it is we do. And the revision of the dictionary really is the job. It's something that I just take so seriously.

Emily Brewster: And the language just keeps getting bigger. It keeps us very busy. If you have a question or comment, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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