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A defining moment

Updating the dictionary calls for a way with words

SPRINGFIELD -- A deceptive stillness pervades the word factory as Stephen J. Perrault strolls past the cubicles where the English language is being stretched into a provocative new shape. Perrault is the unassuming owner of a grandiose title -- "director of defining" -- at Merriam-Webster Inc., the venerable dictionary publisher tucked into a squat brick building that

resembles a grammar school. It was Perrault, along with more than 40 editors, who spent the past two years plucking words such as "barista," "Botox," "dot-commer," "Frankenfood," "headbanger," "McJob," "paintball," and "phat" from the American vernacular and plopping them into the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. The thing about the lexicographic game, though, is that the job is never finished. Perrault already has his eye on a certain word that mushroomed beyond its rodeo origins to become the anthem of Red Sox Nation. "If the Sox go all the way this year," he said last week, "maybe we'll put `cowboy up' in the next edition."

He was only half kidding. If Kevin Millar's midsummer exhortation to Sox fans lives on in newspapers, magazines, Internet sites, and books (a lot depends on the outcome of last night's game, of course), Merriam-Webster lexicographers will duly log such "citations" onto 3-by-5 slips of paper and add them to the chest-high crimson card catalogs already groaning with more than 15 million citations of words and their usages that date back to the late 1800s. If "cowboy up" or other promising newcomers -- at the moment, "blog" and "senior moment" are coming up fast on the outside -- appear in a wide range of published sources over a sustained period of time, they could land a spot in the next edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary a decade or so from now. If not, they will meet the fate of such former up-and-comers as "vidiocy" and "cable-ready," which now sit forlornly atop the citation files in brown cardboard boxes marked "rejected," or old standbys like "long play," which was dropped from the dictionary because CDs have supplanted long-playing records.

"We're looking primarily for evidence of new vocabulary," Perrault says. "The only question we're asking ourselves is: Is this word an established part of the language?" A question they do not ask themselves is: Do I personally like this word? So "wack" (slang meaning "not up to the mark; lousy, lame") made it into the dictionary even though, Perrault notes dryly, "It's not a word I expect ever to use."

All told, 10,000 new words and meanings of existing words (such as broadening the definition of "burn" to include digitally recording music onto a disc) muscled their way into the dictionary, out of 165,000 entries overall. Counting pronunciation, etymology, and other revisions (the label "slang" was dropped from the definition of the word "humongous," for instance) there were 100,000 changes to the dictionary, which grew 64 pages since the last edition a decade ago to a hefty 1,623 and arrived this summer.

In completing that massive mission, the editors who compiled this slang-filled edition had to roll with a few lexical punches. In the past, when a definition required an illustrative quotation, editors would reach for a herniating volume called a "concordance," loaded with lines from the likes of Milton. But since the bard of fallen angels was of little use in explaining the current meaning of the word "gnarly," the editors turned to one of "Charlie's Angels," actress Drew Barrymore, quoting her opinion in Rolling Stone that a certain reporter "has some pretty gnarly karma coming."

"We're not really the ones who give words legitimacy," says associate editor Karen L. Wilkinson. "People think we do, but if a word gets into the dictionary, it's because a lot of people have already decided it belongs there."

Even so, making it into Merriam-Webster's is a big step in the life of a word. Although there are a lot of other dictionaries out there -- including some that use "Webster's" in their title, which Merriam-Webster has been unable to copyright despite court challenges -- the Collegiate Dictionary has long been a mainstream fixture in American life. Cropping up not just on campuses and library shelves but in homes and workplaces, it has sold 55 million copies in the past century and has been the best-selling hardcover book during that period. The largest-ever first printing of the new edition -- 500,000 copies -- went quickly, and the dictionary is already in a second printing. Since Merriam-Webster undertakes complete revisions of the dictionary only once a decade (though smaller updates occur annually), the arrival of a new edition is one way to gauge the state of the language.

We are here to report that the state is . . . a bit dizzying. From "Goth" to "brewski" to "def," from "collateral damage" to "psyops" to "dead presidents," from "mosh pit" to "fen-phen" to "punditocracy," a picture of a language in perpetual flux emerges from "C-11," as the new edition is known inside Merriam-Webster's editorial offices. Many of the chosen words originated before the last decade, but they did not appear in enough published sources to make it into previous editions of the Collegiate Dictionary. "It can't just be spoken. It's got to be written," notes associate editor Kathleen M. Doherty.

What they found in the past two years was that writers were using more slang than ever. Although traditional sources of new words -- realms such as science, pop culture, the military, and youth argot played their part -- another major reason for such widespread changes in the new dictionary is that "Internet and technology words hit our lexicon like wildfire," explains Gordon T. Macomber, chief executive officer of Merriam-Webster. In fact, the dot-com revolution -- and the strange new word that encapsulated that strange new world -- upended the old rule that a word had to be in use for at least 10 years to warrant inclusion in the dictionary. So jargon such as "killer app" made it in, and the definitions of "lurk," "browser," and "spam" were expanded to include their Internet meanings.

The editorial offices here have the hushed atmosphere of a library, with only the occasional tapping of computer keys to break the silence. Inside the cubicles sit editors and researchers, red felt-tipped pens at the ready, reading and marking, reading and marking. It might not be everyone's definition of a dream job, but it seems to suit this group (heavily populated with English majors) just fine. "I still am amazed I found a job where I spend all day reading, writing, and interacting with the English language," says associate editor Rebecca R. Bryer, who holds a master's in English literature. (The only downside, Bryer says, is that at parties or family gatherings, "People expect me to know everything about every word.") The editors pore over newspapers, periodicals (Time, The New Yorker, Ebony, The New York Review of Books), novels (Tom Clancy, Toni Morrison, Stephen King), even food labels.

Consequently, they are attentive to every tremor in the linguistic landscape. Doherty will notice, for instance, that a TV newscaster uses the word "NIMBY" without defining it, or file away the fact that the word "spendy," meaning expensive, is slowly making its way east from the West Coast. They will speculate on whether a word will immediately enter the language, as "splashdown" did in the space-race 1960s, or take many years, like "collateral damage," first cited in 1972.

There are times when Merriam-Webster's ironclad reliance on the written word, as opposed to word-of-mouth, leads to some anomolies. "McJob" made it into the new edition, but "McMansion" did not, while "oy," a common Yiddish expression of dismay that dates back to 1892, finally made it into the Collegiate Dictionary for the first time this year because it began cropping up in an increasing number of columns and books.

In a bid to keep up with the times and fend off the competition, Merriam-Webster included a CD-ROM version and a free one-year subscription to the company's website with the new edition of the Collegiate Dictionary. That's a long way, technologically speaking, from the publishing company's origins in the 1840s, when a pair of Springfield printers, brothers Charles and George Merriam, bought the rights to Noah Webster's dictionary. They began publishing Webster's Unabridged Dictionary in 1847, but it was a half-century before the first edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary was published.

It's been successful ever since. However, some recent ventures by the company, such as its "Encyclopedia of Religion," "haven't really panned out for us," Macomber acknowledges. Tightening its focus on the dictionary business, Merriam-Webster plans to soon market a "Learner's Dictionary" for residents of foreign countries who want to learn "American English"; Macomber estimates the potential market at 1 billion people. The effort will start in Asia, then move to Russia and Latin America. Underscoring the importance of international publishing, Macomber and several other company executives are heading this week to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where they will get feedback from international distributors on the new Collegiate Dictionary and talk over upcoming projects.

Meanwhile in Springfield, the editors will continue reading and marking, reading and marking. The next immediate task is to work on the Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. But the editors will also be keeping their eyes peeled for new words that have captured the public's imagination -- with no guarantee, as they know better than most, that it will stay that way. "A word will be coined and will be instantly prominent," Perrault says. "But its life expectancy may not be that long."

Don Aucoin can be reached at

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