Word Matters Podcast

Getting Philosophical About the Dictionary

Word Matters, Episode 71

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Should we only enter words everyone knows, or does the dictionary need to cover the obscure as well? The answer is, well, pretty philosophical.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: are dictionaries supposed to enter the words no one's ever heard of, or only the words everyone already knows? 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 Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

Would you buy a dictionary if it only contained words you already knew, or do you like being confronted in your dictionary, as we ourselves are, by lexical strangers unheard of in daily life? Ammon's been looking at what sorts of words Merriam-Webster has historically used to entice dictionary readers into buying a new edition. There are some surprises.

Ammon Shea: In a recent episode, we spent some time talking about a batch of new words, fresh words that we just added to the dictionary. Some of these are new words. Some of these are old words that we're just now adding, but it's an update. And there were a number of words which some people loved or didn't know about. Somebody had a kind of interesting reaction that was a writer named Maura Hohman wrote a piece online, title of which is, "True Life: I'm a Millennial and I Don't Know Most of the New Words Merriam-Webster Just Added." And the subhead is "30-somethings have aged out of using a dictionary, apparently." And she goes on to give maybe a half dozen or so examples, five or six examples of words we added, with which she is presumably unfamiliar, such as teraflop, deplatform, oobleck, zero-day, blank check company.

And I think this raises an interesting question, which is, should you know the words that are in a dictionary? Should you not know the words that are in a dictionary? Is this relevant? And it's interesting to me because, Peter, we've spoken about this before, in terms of the words that trend in lookups. It's not obvious why people go to a dictionary to look up words all the time. Sometimes it's because they don't know what the word means, sometimes it's because they do know what the word means, and then sometimes it's for some other reason. Have you seen this reaction from people before where they say, why are you printing these words? They don't know what they mean.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, sure. We've seen this in a slightly different context. I've seen a parallel phenomenon with our Word of the Day, which is an email and a podcast. And I used to see the letters that came in and they were exactly half split between letters that complained that the words that were chosen as word of the day were too basic and simple, and really didn't teach anything new to the reader. And then the other half of letters said, well, why are the words you're choosing as word of the day so abstract and abstruse and difficult that I'll never have the chance to use them? I would have figured we must be doing it just about right if we got both of those kinds of responses.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. And I think that is true with new words in general also. There are some people who are expecting that we're going to put the newest, freshest, most exciting words in, and that they want these to be words that are new to them, because then they feel like we're doing our job. And then other people feel like, oh, well I know some of these words. So what are you even doing, Merriam-Webster?

Ammon Shea: I'm a little confused by the argument that the dictionary should primarily be made up of words with which you are familiar. That seems like it kind of goes against our raison-d'etre there. Again, that's not the only purpose to which people put dictionaries to find unfamiliar words. People use us for finding the etymology of a word, the origin, they find out for spelling, pronunciation, capitalization, all kinds of things like that. But one of the real main points of the dictionary, I believe is not going out on a limb to say this, is that we provide definitions for words which may be unfamiliar.

Emily Brewster: Well, and that harks back to the very earliest monolingual English dictionaries, which were dictionaries of hard words.

Peter Sokolowski: Inkhorn terms, inkhorn meaning the hard words, mostly from learned discourse, mostly from Greek and Latin roots.

Ammon Shea: That is an interesting point because it goes back to Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticallin 1604, generally thought of as the first monolingual English dictionary. So this is just over 400 years ago and it was kind of an inkhorn dictionary but one of the things that's interesting about Cawdrey's work is that he described it as defining all the hard, usual words. So they are inkhorn but they're not entirely obscure. They're kind of, I think the hard words that you might come across in everyday life.

Peter Sokolowski: So utility was still at the root of the dictionary.

Ammon Shea: I think that was his intention, yeah.

Emily Brewster: You want this book because you want to improve your own ability to interact with the better educated.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, absolutely. It kind of made me think this admonition, that the dictionary is doing words that I don't know, defining words that I'm unfamiliar with. It made me wonder, well, what other new words in our own advertising, what words have we presented as being new? And at least for the first half of the 20th century, Merriam-Webster, when we advertised a new dictionary, we would very often use this as a selling point. Kind of the words need to know or the words which might be of interest to you. The earliest one I've seen is 1917, in an advertisement every day in your talk and reading at home, on the street, car, in the office, shopping, school, you likely question the meaning of some new word. And one of the examples they give is "what is white coal?" Which apparently was a hot new word in 1917.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, what is it?

Ammon Shea: I don't know.

Peter Sokolowski: One of the definitions is "electricity." In 1917, maybe that makes sense.

Ammon Shea: I'm going with "tasmanite," because I like the look of that word. Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: "Tasmanite" is the other definition.

Ammon Shea: "Compound of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur in minute reddish brown scales in shale." This is why I kind of find the premise of this questionable, is that for a number of decades I've been working in and around lexicography, I've read many, many dictionaries as a professional hazard kind of, and for fun. And I basically spend all my time looking for words and looking at words in the dictionary. And most of these words, I have no idea what they mean. So I think the conceit that one would know all the words in the dictionary is surprising. And looking back again at some of the words that we've publicized in 1921, our ad actually said "words of recent interest." You get to see an idea of what was going on. It was Anzac, ace, bertha, blighty, Bolsheviki, camouflage, Lewis gun, Liberty bond, Sammy, Soviet tank, and war bride.

Peter Sokolowski: This is all World War I and Soviet revolution, right?

Ammon Shea: This was 1921. So this was the immediate aftermath, and camouflage didn't come up for the first time. And we dated it earlier than that. But it entered into widespread use, as did words like Anzac, Bertha and the Bolsheviki as obviously Bolshevik comes from the Russian revolution. In 1924, our ads said that our dictionary contained such modern terms as audio frequency, para vein, mud gun, vitamin, irridenta, and sterile. Most of which I have to say are entirely unclear to me.

Emily Brewster: Vitamin is going strong.

Ammon Shea: Vitamin is still doing fine. Irridenta has not really had such a successful run of it. By 1931, 1930, we still were advertising audio frequency as a big word, but eugenism, Hooverize, which is a lovely word based on our former president, President Hoover, who was in charge of food distribution at one point, and he was said to be overly stingy with this. And so Hooverize was to be stingy in the distribution of food, I believe. Broadcast was a new word, which is interesting because broadcast is actually not a new word. It goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, the original meaning referred to a method of sowing seed. You would just cast it broadly. It had a very literal meeting, but obviously in 1930, it's taken on a radio sense. Altimeter was another one, Certax, Freud and hokum. These were the hot words of 1930. Each subsequent decade, you see, 1950 we have antibiotic, bazooka, belotron, Canasta, flying saucer, Geiger counter, and, of course, genocide. We're seeing the history of the 20th century written in the press releases.

Peter Sokolowski: I have a print ad from The Atlantic magazine, February 1938. There's a whole column ad from Merriam-Webster. And there's a little photograph of a couple sort of looking at each other, maybe at a kitchen table. And there's a quotation bubble from the lady. And it says just "What does this word fascist mean?" And then there's an answer. Henry says, "It comes from fasces, a bundle of rods and an axe that you see on this dime." Our new Merriam-Webster gives an interesting story about fasces. 1938, needless to say, fascism, fascist, a very significant term. The advertising was sort of based upon the premise that people didn't know what it meant.

Ammon Shea: That's interesting. I have to say that if your dictionary does contain entirely words that you are familiar with, either that you are very, very smart or you have not such a good dictionary, I think it's safe to say, but it's also interesting looking back over the history of words that are presented as of moment, because it illustrates how difficult it is to really prognosticate about a word's success. It was an interesting article we wrote in 1940 about new words. And one of the words that we were considering at the time was googol. Of course, it's taken off. And the other one we were really considering at the time was smilch, which was a playful form of filching something, stealing, lighthearted theft, like smilching cookies or something.

Emily Brewster: That's nice.

Ammon Shea: And that one didn't have the same success as googol. I think it's safe to say.

Emily Brewster: We should, for people who don't know, the googol use of the word googol.

Ammon Shea: It's the figure one followed by 100 zeros, equal to 10 to the hundredth power.

Emily Brewster: It's a ginormous number.

Ammon Shea: It was named by Milton Sirotta, who was the nephew of the American mathematician Ed Kasner. So it's one of the few words for which we are fairly certain of its provinence and who originated it.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Coming up, more on the new words we've historically touted. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Speaker 4: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: In part two of today's episode, we continue the exploration of the various new words Merriam-Webster has announced at the release of a new edition of its dictionaries. And we look at which of those new words have held on and which have been mostly forgotten.

Peter Sokolowski: The language of blogger, Jonathon Owen has a blog called Arrant Pedantry, and he commented on this same essay. And he's got a nice sentence that says a dictionary that contained only the words you already know wouldn't be a very useful dictionary, would it? And so that kind of puts it in a very succinct package, but Ammon, you began this conversation with a reflection on what makes a person look up a word. And that's something that we know more about now than we used to because of the dictionary being online. And it's absolutely true that many people do assume that looking up a word is automatically a sign that you do not know the word, that you have no knowledge whatsoever. I know for me, and I'm probably not a typical user because I must look up a hundred words a day, but I know for me, many of those words are words I'm very familiar with.

I'm looking up for nuance or for history or for etymology or for stress or phonetics. However, we now know that very frequently, people are looking words up that they are familiar with, but maybe have encountered in an unusual situation, especially if it suddenly seems important in a legal or technical or medical way. And so you're confirming something that you already know, and that's what a dictionary does too. And I think there's not enough recognition on the part of the public. In other words, it is a little bit of a simplification to think that you would only look up words that you don't know in the dictionary, or equally that you should only have words in the dictionary that you have encountered before. To me, they kind of cancel each other out. Neither of these ideas are correct.

Ammon Shea: Right. I routinely multiple times throughout the day, I look up words that I am absolutely certain of the meaning of. The reason I do it is because I don't want to look like a dumb ass when I'm wrong, and I'm wrong all the time. I've learned through experience that no matter how certain I am of the meaning of a word, there is a decent enough chance that I am in fact entirely mistaken, that I should just double check. Takes a minute. I look it up and I save myself some small measure of potential embarrassment. If there was some other way that I could save myself that measure of potential embarrassment in other aspects of my life, I would really love it. It's such a useful tool, but it only extends itself to my use of words.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a useful tool. I mean, that's the bottom line is it's a utility in that sense. And that is one of the best things about a dictionary, the comfort of knowing.

Ammon Shea: Blame somebody else if it turns out that it's wrong.

Peter Sokolowski: The accumulated knowledge that's in there and it's waiting for you.

Emily Brewster: I do think that sometimes people use a dictionary because they want to tell us that we are wrong because they do that also.

Peter Sokolowski: Clearly an important use of the dictionary is to tell someone else that they're wrong.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: To correct another person.

Ammon Shea: That should be our new ad campaign for when you need to tell someone else they're wrong. Merriam-Webster's got your back.

Emily Brewster: We might tell you actually that you are wrong.

Ammon Shea: When someone's wrong, Merriam-Webster is there.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, I knew you were doing this research into some of the words that had been publicized in the past, which I have not known these things. And I love it. I looked back into my files and found the list of words that we compiled when the 11th Collegiate Dictionary was produced. And it's funny to see some of the words this came out in 2003. PDA was new, personal digital assistant. Nobody has a PDA anymore. Also, palm top, a small portable computer easily held in the palm of the hand. We call that a phone.

Peter Sokolowski: Instead of a laptop.

Emily Brewster: Right?

Peter Sokolowski: I'm just going to call my phone a palm top from now on.

Ammon Shea: Are there ones that you're surprised to see in there from twenty years ago?

Emily Brewster: I'm looking right now at the ones that relate to technology, and the term scanner was new, a device that scans an image such as a photograph or a document, such as a page of text, especially for use or storage on a computer.

Ammon Shea: Are there any in there that are really successful that have really made it big?

Peter Sokolowski: Scanner.

Emily Brewster: Well scanner, certainly. Yeah. Scanner definitely has. A port. The computer port. And router. Routers were new, a device that mediates the transmission roots of data packets over an electronic communications system as the internet.

Ammon Shea: As the internet.

Emily Brewster: We now say such as, and I believe that in the merriam-webster.com dictionary, all of those parenthetical as have been replaced with such as, unless they are adverbial, in which case we continue to just have the as. This was a space-saving tactic that was necessary when we were constrained by the need to produce a book that was portable and affordable.

Peter Sokolowski: I remember the author tour for this edition, for 2003. And I flew around the country and went on TV at 5:00 AM in a bunch of places, but also gave book talks at universities and things. It was a great experience. We certainly would've limited the words we talked about to probably just a handful. And so some of these are new to me.

Ammon Shea: Do people complain about these words in terms of the old often heard complaint of the language is deteriorating and young people are ruining it? Or are these words sufficiently solidified in use enough that we've just decided to accept them?

Emily Brewster: It's not infrequently that people are complaining that a slang word has gotten in. Sure, there are some people who are unhappy about am I right?

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. Always.

Emily Brewster: Nobody said a thing when we entered maltodextrin.

Ammon Shea: But I bet in 1921, somebody was complaining about blighty.

Emily Brewster: Seems likely. In 2003, when the 11th Collegiate Dictionary came out, there was some wringing of hands over the fact that we had entered the word phat. P-H-A-T.

Ammon Shea: Oh right.

Peter Sokolowski: We made a lot of marketing copy out of that. In fact, we had photographs of the citation cards, the little index cards with examples of use of the word phat. I do remember that one.

Ammon Shea: This is obviously not a new thing. The oft told story of Webster's Third New International Dictionary that we published in 1961, was that there were innumerable articles written about how terrible it was that we had entered the word ain't, which of course had been in the dictionary for decades at that point. It wasn't new at all. So my guess is that as long as there are new words, there will be people complaining about them.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Ammon Shea: There will always be an England. There will always be a complaint.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at Word Matters at 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 Adam Maid and John Voci. For 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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