Subject: How Does a Word Become a Word?

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How Does a Word Become a Word?

The English language is about 1,400 years old. One of the earliest-known English dictionaries, The Elementarie (1582), contained 8,000 words.

As of January 2020, English now includes more than one million words—a figure that differs from words accepted in dictionaries, which can range from 170,000 to 470,000 depending on the source.

Even if we discuss 470,000 formally accepted words, that still leaves more than a half million still wandering. Some might then wonder how one finds a home in a dictionary.

Always tracking and researching English usage, dictionary writers and editors stay busy adding new words and updating the meanings and applications of existing ones. For a word to be added to a dictionary on the gatekeepers’ watch, it must typically:

• be used across a wide area by many people who agree on its meaning
• establish that it has staying power.

As an example, someone in Oklahoma starts to use the word snote to describe a sneeze that sounds like a musical note.

The word begins to appear locally through e-mails, websites, social media, and television. From there, it moves into the mainstream reaching regional and national audiences, and before long, people are using the word on both coasts.

By this time, dictionary writers and editors have already noted the word, its sources, and its context in their databases. If the word continues to perpetuate and its meaning stands firm, they will consult with other colleagues to determine if snote to mean “a sneeze that sounds like a musical note” has achieved sufficient permanence; if so, they will add it to the dictionary.

If on the other hand the word begins to fizzle out as a trend, the word might still circulate, but it will not be formally validated. It could, however, be reviewed again in the future.

With those thoughts in mind, let’s look at some new words, existing words with added meanings, and words of varying ages that were still popular in recent decades but have since been petering out.

New Word (part of speech, approx. first use) New Meaning
bucket list (n., 2005–10) a list of things a person wants to achieve or experience, as before reaching a certain age or dying
unfriend (v., 2005–10) to remove a person from one's list of friends or contacts on social media
hashtag (n., 2005–10) a word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#), used within a social-media message to identify a keyword or topic of interest and prompt a search for it
selfie (n., 2000–05) a photograph taken with a mobile device by a person who is also in the photograph, especially for posting on social media
blogger (n., 1995–2000) one who writes about topics, experiences, observations, or opinions, etc., on the Internet

Old Word Added Meaning
mouse (n., before 900) a hand-held device moved about on a flat surface to direct the cursor on a computer screen
browse (v., 1400–50) to search for and read content on the Internet
cookie (n., 1695–1705) a message or a segment of data containing information about a user, sent by a web server to a browser and sent back to the server each time the browser requests a web page
stream (v., 13th century) to transfer digital data in a continuous stream, esp. for immediate processing or playback
tweet (n.,1768) a post made on the Twitter online message service

Fading Word Meaning
gal (n., 1785–95) young woman
slacks (n., 1815–25) trousers for casual wear
groovy (adj., 1937) hip, trendy; marvelous, excellent
court (v., 1125–75) to seek the affections of someone to establish a committed relationship
go steady (v., 1900) to date someone exclusively
jalopy (n., 1928) beat-up used vehicle

What do you think—are there any words not yet in the dictionary that should be, or any now present that should be removed? Your input will be considered for a future article revisiting the relevance of words.

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I'm starting a social network for chickens as a way to make hens meet.

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