In the current Oxford English Dictionary there are a total of 171, 476 words. That’s more than the population of the city of Oxford itself! And this number is growing year by year…
Every year, hundreds of new English words and expressions emerge, all of which are potential candidates for a place in the OED. However, like an Olympic Games for words, there are a few stages they must pass through first before making the final cut.
So, just how does a new word make its way into this tome? What does a meagre word have to do to qualify for the honour of a place in the Oxford English Dictionary? Read on to find out…
Finding new words
Oxford University Press has one of the most wide-ranging and largest language research programmes in the world. Their two most important sources of information are the Oxford Reading Programme and the Oxford English Corpus. The Corpus is made up of entire documents, sourced mostly from the Internet, and contains ‘newly coined words’, while the Reading Programme is an electronic collection of sentences or short extracts taken from a huge variety of writing, from the lyrics of songs and popular fiction novels to scientific and peer-reviewed journals. It is comprised of many contributions from an international network of readers who are constantly on the lookout for new words or new meanings.
Keeping track and making choices
These so-called ‘word hunters’ monitor the Corpus and the Reading Programme to track any new words which come into the English language. When they find that a new term is being widely used in a variety of different places (not just being used by one author or writer) it then becomes a candidate for the dictionary.
All of these new words and phrases have to be recorded in a print or an online source before they can be considered for inclusion: it’s not enough just to hear them in conversation or on television. The Oxford English Dictionary team then select the words which they think to be the most noteworthy or influential and those which they think are likely to be used for a long time into the future.
Unsurprisingly, the digital age has affected the way the process of selection takes place. A new word used to have to be used over a period of two or three years before the team would consider adding it to a dictionary. However, in the current age of digital sources, the situation has changed drastically. With social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, new words can achieve enormous success with a larger number of people in a much shorter space of time, and people assume that they will find these new words and terms in their dictionaries. This presents an additional challenge to the OED team, who try to assess whether a word is short lived or whether it will endure in the English language for a long time. For example, the word “twerk” got a place in the OED in 2015, but its popularity has waned considerable since then.
It’s not all hard work for the ‘word hunters though’. They don’t always have to search for the terms by themselves. Members of the public often send in words which they have made up and ask whether they can be added to the dictionary. Unfortunately, most contributions are not accepted, because they are usually words that have been used only for a short time. However, the words they send can be very interesting and funny! Of course, some invented words do become popular and become a part of the English language, either because they fill a gap in meaning (“binge-watch”, which describes watching a show whose episodes Netflix releases all in one go), or because they are describing a new concept ( “vape” which describes the new concept of smoking e-cigarettes).