How Do Words Get in the Dictionary?

Who decides?

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #281

Dictionaries Can Be Controversial

Dictionaries have seen their share of controversy over the years. For example, Webster’s Third International Dictionary was widely criticized when it came out in 1961 and The New York Times refused to use it. James Parton, who owned the magazine American Heritage, was so outraged by the permissiveness of Webster’s Third that he first tried to buy the company to pull the book from the market; and when that failed, he spearheaded the creation of a competing American Heritage Dictionary. Today, however, Webster’s Third is widely used and endorsed by both the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style.

A few decades after the Webster’s Third uproar, Robert Burchfield, editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary, received death threats for including racial and sexist slurs in his dictionary.

Being a dictionary maker isn’t always the tame job you might imagine it to be.

How Do Dictionary Makers Find Words?

Dictionary makers do spend a lot of time reading though. It’s how they find new words and new meanings for existing words. According to the Merriam-Webster website, their editors spend an hour or two a day just reading published materials such as magazines, newspapers, books, and electronic sources, and they make notes about anything interesting they find such as a new word, a different spelling of an existing word, or a word being used with a meaning that isn’t in the current dictionary. (1) It’s these changes in the language of published material that dictionary makers consider when they are updating the dictionary.

If you want to see changes in the dictionary, you need to change the way words are used in published materials. For example, if multiple magazines start using “staycation,” and they use it over an extended period of time, and then dictionary editors start seeing it in newspaper and books, it’s likely “staycation” is going to show up in the dictionary. It can happen quickly these days. “Staycation” is, in fact, in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and they list its first known use in 2005.


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.