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Here's What It's Like To Actually Edit The Dictionary

“Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t make me better at Scrabble, but it does make me proud.”
07/03/2018 01:14pm ET | Updated September 28, 2018
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Two dictionary editors discuss keeping up with the English language and words’ changing meanings.

When you hear the title “editor,” editing a dictionary is likely not the first thing to come to mind. How do you edit such a comprehensive work anyway?

Peter Sokolowski, a Merriam-Webster editor-at-large, said that people who compile and edit a dictionary are also referred to as lexicographers. As editors, his team members, who work on the online and print versions of the dictionary, take on a lot of reading.

He told HuffPost that Merriam-Webster used to have an editorial program that required its staffers to read an hour a day. Employees coordinated with one another to ensure that everyone was reading different things, from magazines to newspapers to novels to academic journals. The program is much less formalized now, he said, but the team still reads a lot.

Nowadays, of course, editors also have online material to read ― not only social media posts but also online news sources and databases of historic documents. Sokolowski said that the addition of online reading has, in some ways, made a dictionary editor’s job easier.

“We can find so much more,” he said. “I wouldn’t go back. I’m just old enough that I started here writing the dictionary before there were any computers. There was only one computer on the editorial floor ... It was for keeping pay stubs and time keep.”

Similar to Merriam-Webster’s editorial program, Oxford English Dictionary has a team dedicated to reading a variety of publications (in print and online) and identifying new words. With help from this team and her own research, Fiona McPherson, a senior editor for the dictionary’s new words group, decides which words should be added to the dictionary.

“Each day starts with me looking at a suggestion for a word that isn’t yet in the Oxford English Dictionary, and my job is then to research and evaluate the evidence for the word,” she said via email. “Every word included in the Oxford English Dictionary has to pass the criteria for length and breadth of usage, and I ascertain this by looking on a number of databases to find examples of the word in use.”

She also is responsible for writing the word’s “all-important definition,” she said.

“This can be challenging in a number of ways; getting to the heart of a term with which you are familiar can be just as difficult as describing something unfamiliar,” she wrote.

So how does a word get added to the dictionary? Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have a few tests that a word must pass. The dictionary teams make sure it has widespread use in a variety of publications. (It can’t be repeatedly used by only one writer to be considered.) It also has to have long-term use or show promise that it will stick around and stand the test of time. Sokolowski said Merriam-Webster deliberately uses the vague phrase “long-term use” because in the digital age, words can meet this criterion much more quickly than before.

“In the old days, it used to be decades. It would take time,” he said. “But I think ‘blog’ was in the dictionary within four years of its coinage. Also true for the word ‘AIDS’ in the 1980s for the same reason. It was very clear that it was a word that was going to stay that was in the news all the time, a word that we needed in our dictionary and a word that didn’t exist just a few years earlier. There is no easy answer [what long-term use means]. Every single word has its own pace.”

Some recently added terms include “binge-watch,” “clickbait” and “photobomb.” Sokolowski noted that the dictionary also must keep up with changing meanings of words. For example, Merriam-Webster added a definition of “bandwidth,” for the sense of “ability to take on a task.”

Merriam-Webster also requires words to have meaningful use and a general agreement on what they mean. This is why, he said, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary doesn’t include “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which seemingly satisfies the widespread and long-term use criteria but not meaningful use. The word “irregardless,” however, is included in the dictionary, with a note to use “regardless” instead, because above all, the editors want to be useful and make people aware of how words are being used, Sokolowski said.

Becoming a dictionary editor doesn’t necessarily mean having studied words or literature in school. At Merriam-Webster, editors have a variety of backgrounds. Sokolowski said it’s important to have editors with expertise in physics, music, literature, art history and more so entries can be as accurate as possible.

As she adds words and succinctly puts together their definitions, McPherson is learning about a variety of topics as well.

“One [entry] might be an old word that is no longer in use, and then the next a regional slang term, and the next a new genre of music,” she said. “It keeps you on your toes and definitely stops you from ever feeling bored.”

Both editors are incredibly proud of what they do, although Sokolowski admitted that the work can be tedious.

“We spend all day, every day thinking about words,” he said. “Candidly, it’s a little bit boring. We’re word nerds. That’s who we are ... and we own that.”

Even if the work doesn’t always give you an advantage on game night with friends.

“One of the most satisfying things about the job I do is starting off with a blank page and ending up, if I have done my job properly, with an entry which contributes to the history of the English language,” McPherson wrote. “Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t make me better at Scrabble, but it does make me proud.”