How Do Words Get in the Dictionary?

Who decides?

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #281

A few years ago, the New York Times had an interesting article about Supreme Court justices citing dictionary definitions in their rulings more often than they have in the past.

The most striking part of the article was that justices have cited more than 120 different dictionaries, which suggests they might be cherry-picking to find definitions that suit their own purposes. And 120 different dictionaries? Who knew there even were 120 different dictionaries?

The article doesn’t say, but it could be that justices are citing specialized dictionaries that cover words related to just medicine or international business, and we do know that sometimes judges look at old dictionaries—for example, in constitutional cases—to see if the meaning of a word was different back when the law was written.

Different Kinds of Dictionaries

Most modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they attempt to describe the language as it is used.

Even if you’re not considering specialized dictionaries, more dictionaries exist than you probably realize. For example, most publishers release dictionaries of varying levels of completeness. There are short dictionaries for children and inexpensive pocket dictionaries that don’t have many words. An unabridged or collegiate dictionary will have more words, and the largest Oxford English Dictionary comes as a 20-volume set. It’s going to include words other dictionaries don’t have, such as words that aren’t used much, if at all, anymore. For example, you’re probably familiar with the word “feckless”—it’s an adjective that means “ineffective or incompetent.” Well, it has an antonym—“feckful”—which you probably haven’t heard because it isn’t used much. You won’t find “feckful” in Dictionary.com or the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, but you will find it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

What Is a Dictionary?

A lot of people think dictionaries are like rule books and that dictionary writers make judgements about acceptable and unacceptable words; but most modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they attempt to describe the language as it is actually used.

They do still make determinations about when words reach a threshold of use that merits inclusion in the dictionary. It can’t just be a flash in the pan; a word has to be used a lot by many different writers to make it into a dictionary. The judgement dictionary writers make is based on use, not on ideas related to acceptability. That is one reason you’ll find swear words and words such as “ain’t” and “irregardless” in the dictionary. Whether you like them or not, people use them.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.