How Words Become “Official”

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.”


Words are powerful – they can hurt, insult, make you happy, fulfill dreams; they can even be legally binding. They are a critical part of marketing; the “right” words can make a campaign. But how does a word get its big break and make it into the dictionary? How did “jabberwocky” go from being the title of a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll to a word in the Oxford English Dictionary? There is a well-defined protocol to determine if a word is worthy. Even with this rigor, both the OED and Merriam-Webster add several thousand words to their online editions every year.

Use it or lose it

According to Merriam-Webster, “a word gets into a dictionary when it is used by many people who all agree it means the same thing.” How else could a word like “fracking” make the cut? OED follows a similar process, although it highlights its use of technology in its process. OED also solicits suggestions directly from “the language community” and the public, so if you have a word you think should make it in, visit the OED community.

Sometimes old is new again

Dictionaries aren’t just looking for brand new words, like “selfie” or “hashtag.” Sometimes it’s all about a new meaning for an old word, such as mouse (no, not the one that squeaks) or cookie (unfortunately, the new type of cookie isn’t nearly as delicious as the traditional type).

But wait, there’s still more

Merriam-Webster cites three main criteria for inclusion:

•  Frequent use

•  Widespread use

•  Meaningful use

And the winners are

The dictionaries are regularly updated online to include new words added. For example, the OED updates its dictionary four times a year and in June 2018 added over 900 new words. Some seem a little more esoteric, such as “precariat,” a class of people whose employment, income and living standards are insecure or precarious, while some veer to pop culture, such as “spoiler alert.” As in spoiler alert, this is the end of this post.