Dictionary charts ins and outs of word usage

PHILADELPHIA — "I'll tell you what the key is," says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster Inc. "The key is usage."

He's explaining how the folks at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, decide what words are in, out, and almost there. They don't go according to rules. Or according to notions of what's "proper" or not. They go by how people today use English.

Duh? Pretty innocuous? It's just words, right? In a book?

In fact, such decisions affect the word choices of millions of people — and so they can be pretty controversial.

Which shows the difference between what we think language is (fixed, with eternally clear rights and wrongs) and what it really is (dynamic, organic, ever-changing).

This summer, Merriam-Webster, as it often does, released a list of words new to the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Some of the 150 newbies are familiar from the Web: tweet, crowdsourcing, social media. Others, such as boomerang child and helicopter parent, are from social discourse. Still others, such as bromance and cougar, are good old slang. The fist bump has been around since at least the 1960s, but the affectionate Obamas have made it part of parlance.

They all belong, says Sokolowski. People have been using them a lot for a long time. And that gets you in.

"If a word is likely to be encountered by a general readership," says Sokolowski, "it has to be in the dictionary, has to be, because otherwise the dictionary doesn't work. Some people complain about seeing tweet in the dictionary — but tweets were central in the Arab Spring, and in the Anthony Weiner affair. People need to know what a tweet is."

"People have a misconception that dictionaries and grammar books determine what language is," says Muffy E. A. Siegel, associate professor of English at Temple University. "But in fact, it's the opposite. We're always changing and getting rid of words and rules people no longer use. Language is a living system that changes to serve the needs of its users."

How do you keep track of all that? At Merriam-Webster, long famed for its file cards, much is now done by computer, but the actual "reading and marking" is done by hand. Staffers comb publications from Vogue and Vanity Fair to Wine Spectator and Sailing.

People don't always like what happens in dictionaries. When Merriam-Webster released the list of new words, there was some pushback (not in the new edition). What, crowdsourcing? bromance? All this technospeak (also omitted) and slang? Those words don't belong in dictionaries! People expect dictionaries to provide fixity in language, to tell them what's right and wrong in spelling, meaning, and usage.

There's a problem with that, says William Lutz, emeritus professor of English at Rutgers-Camden and a veteran of the language wars. "Dictionaries can't do it," he says. "They never could. They weren't designed to do it, and they shouldn't be expected to."

Why? Language is a living process that never stops. If anything, the rate of change has accelerated, stoked by the Web and attendant media. It's clear enough, says Lutz, why people want dictionaries to solve all their word queries: "We have a lot of insecurity where language is concerned. We still judge people by their language, and we still see those who don't use what we think is 'proper' language as lower down on the social scale." That means we're afraid of being seen that way ourselves. All this may be why, when people see tweet and parkour and helicopter parent in a dictionary, they ... well ... they lose it.

Some words soon will be leaving us, says Sokolowski. What kicks them out of the boat? Nobody uses them anymore. Have you used aerodrome in the last decade (it means airport)? Or snollygoster (villain)? Disused words get disinvited from the next edition; Webster's 12th is due out in 2013.

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