How to Break into a Dictionary
How do you get a word in the dictionary? Can you even do that?
These were among the many questions on our mind when we decided we wanted to honor our dad’s memory by getting the word he invented, orbisculate, entered into the dictionary.
A quick Google search relieved our initial anxiety -- it seems dictionaries are constantly adding new words to their pages, sometimes precisely because an individual thinks up a neologism that the world can’t live without. So it was possible, but how?
We got some helpful pointers from our Google search, but our dad always taught us that the best way to get something done was to find a real-live person who could answer any questions and guide us on our way.
We needed some English-language dictionary editors to give us the lowdown. Thankfully, as a journalist I work with a lot of people who deal with words, and I’ve also logged way too many hours watching reruns of investigations on “Law & Order” with my parents, so I was able to track down the appropriate individuals.
The first thing they told me: Say the word.
The way a word qualifies for inclusion is when it’s being used by a lot of people. Dictionaries employ scores of editors to scour the English language for new words and check whether they’re being used often and widely. And like many things, the best way to get a word used widely is by word of mouth.
But while any time the word orbisculate is uttered it gets more traction in the English language, they pointed out that it’s a lot easier for the dictionary editors to track how often a word gets mentioned by seeing it with their own eyes. So the key is that people don’t just say the word but write it down.
Writing it anywhere, like in an email or a text, exposes more people to the word and incorporates it into everyday speech. But they pointed out that it will be easier for dictionary editors to come across it -- which is, of course, the most important audience -- if it’s written in a public place. Social media posts on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram are good, as are blogs and comments sections on websites.
That was great news, and encouraged us that our campaign could succeed. But there was, of course, a catch. Dictionary editors only count certain types of uses of the word: When it’s used in context. That means that references to the word as a word, rather than employing it for what it means, don’t get added to their count.
So uses that don’t help get “orbisculate” in the dictionary are phrases such as: “Orbisculate is my favorite new word,” or “I just got the coolest t-shirt with orbisculate on it” (though we certainly don’t want to dissuade anyone from using these fine phrases!).
Instead, here are uses of the word in context: “That orange just orbisculated on me!” and “Be careful that the onion doesn’t orbisculate into your eye when you’re chopping it.” In these examples, orbisculate is functioning as a way of conveying a certain meaning and can’t simply be substituted for any other word that you also think looks good on a t-shirt (though, really, what word could look better on a t-shirt than orbisculate?).
Another important calculation for dictionary editors is how long it’s been in circulation. That means that while 100,000 tweets tomorrow mentioning that a citrus fruit just orbisculated on your or a loved one would be a massive boost to this campaign, a one-time explosion of orbisculation utilization won’t be sufficient to prove its long-lasting inclusion in the lexicon.
They told me about another issue as well. It turns out that variety isn’t only the spice of life, but also essential for getting into a dictionary. Editors look far and wide for words being used, in everything from comic strips to instruction manuals to letters to the editor to song lyrics to menus.
So if enough people use orbiculate in enough different places enough times over enough years, that should earn it a spot in a dictionary. But exactly how many people, places, times and years are needed to qualify as enough are determined by the dictionary editors themselves. If all of this sounds somewhat subjective and inexact, the editors I spoke to admitted that the process is definitely more art than science. It’s also why it’s a good thing that there are so many dictionaries and dictionary editors out there, each making their own calls about the merits and qualifications of orbisculate.
As a result of this information, a centerpiece of our campaign will be a list, to be unveiled in the near future, of 50 different ways we hope to see the word used -- from having it mentioned in a podcast to being the answer in a crossword puzzle to getting Ben & Jerry's to release a new sorbet with our word in the name. One of the things we’ll do on this blog is share our successes (and likely more than a few failures) along the way. Got an idea for an item we should include in our 50 goals list? E-mail it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can use all the suggestions we can get!