New Words 'Pop' Up In Dictionary

Copies of the soon to be released eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary are seen at the company's headquarters office in Springfield, Mass., June 18, 2003. (AP Photo/Nathan Martin) AP

A former dot-commer working a McJob was listening to some headbangers while laying out the last of his dead presidents for longnecks and some less than heart-healthy Frankenfood.

Confused? Consult the new edition of the Collegiate Dictionary from the folks at Merriam-Webster.

Once a decade, Merriam-Webster updates its best-selling dictionary. The 11th edition, available in bookstores Tuesday, includes 10,000 new words and more than 100,000 new meanings and revisions among its 225,000 definitions.

Pop culture remains a vibrant source of new words, with such additions as "headbanger" (defined as both a hard rock musician and a fan), "dead presidents" (paper currency), "McJob" (low paying and dead-end work), "Frankenfood" (genetically engineered food) and "longneck" (beer served in a bottle with a long neck).

Some of the new words have been a longtime getting the widespread assimilation that merits a move from the unabridged dictionary to the Collegiate. The citation file on the Yiddish exclamation "oy," for example, dates back to the immigrant waves of the 1890s. Others have zoomed into the language with the speed of the Internet.

The Web has spun the biggest influence on the American language in the past decade both with the new words it has spawned and the speed with which they have been adopted by the general public, said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster.

"Typically, it takes 10 to 20 years before a word moves out of usage by small groups into the larger populace," Morse said. But dot-commer — someone who works for an online outfit — made the cut in a scant five years.

That's not the only trend, he said.

"In new words for diseases and cures, we are clearly seeing the effect of aging on the baby boomers," he said.

"Comb-over" (an attempt to cover a bald spot), "macular degeneration" (an eye problem that primarily affects the elderly), and the adjective "heart-healthy" (good for the heart), are all new to the 11th edition. Along with them have come a host of new words dealing with how we pay for medical services, such as "primary care."

"It is a reflection of society's changes," Morse said.

Over the past decade, Americans have also taken increasingly to adopting slang expressions — such as "bludge" (goof off) — from other English speaking nations as far flung as New Zealand and Australia, he said.

"We are coming around full circle," Morse said, pointing out that Noah Webster, America's first dictionary editor, had sought to establish a uniquely American language, separate from British usage.

To glean new words and usages, Merriam-Webster's editors spend a large part of their day reading newspapers, magazines and other popular publications.

Each new word and usage — along with a snippet from the publication showing how it was used — goes into an electronic database as well as the Springfield-based industry leader's massive card files. The files, started by Webster himself, now contain more than 75 million words and their usage dating to 1790.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is the best-selling hard-cover dictionary on the market with more than 55 million copies sold since 1898, according to Arthur Bicknell, a spokesman for Merriam-Webster.

The privately held company does not give out sales figures, Bicknell said. However, he said, sales have set records for the past five years and the company was expecting to set a new mark this year.

A decade is fairly typical for a complete overhaul of a collegiate dictionary, but, of course, the newer companies haven't been at it as long as Merriam-Webster. Webster's New World released the 4th edition of its college dictionary in 1999, updating its 3rd edition published in 1988. The American Heritage Dictionary updated its 1994 edition in 2001.

All of the dictionary publishers, including Merriam-Webster, issue smaller annual updates of new words.

The computer age is also affecting how the 162-year-old publishing company is marketing the new edition of the Collegiate. The new book costs $25.95 and comes with a CD-ROM and a one-year subscription to a new Collegiate Web site.

For the past seven years, the 10th Collegiate has been available free on the company's Web site, Morse said. But readers who want to tap into the Web to read the 11th edition will have to subscribe, he said. The annual cost is $14.95 and also gives you online access to the Collegiate Thesaurus, Collegiate Encyclopedia and Spanish-English Dictionary.

"We live in a hybrid world and people were telling us they didn't want the dictionary in just one form," he said.

The book, at least for now, is still king in the dictionary business with the bound volume getting the majority of use, he said.

"People love the serendipity of what is put in front of them when they page through the book in search of a word," Morse said.
  • Jaime Holguin

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