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.
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.
What Is a Style Guide?
If all of this permissiveness makes you crazy, you may be comforted to know that there are books that try to hold the line on language. They’re called usage guides or style guides. For example, books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and Garner’s Modern American Usage make determinations about what is acceptable. They tell you that although some people say “irregardless,” you shouldn’t if you want to be taken seriously.
Yet even these books are influenced by common use. For example, the AP Stylebook recently recommended leaving the hyphen out of e-mail.* The editors said common use has gone so heavily in that direction that it wasn’t worth trying to uphold the rule anymore.
So the next time you turn to a dictionary for a ruling about whether a word is acceptable or a “real” word, keep in mind that although dictionaries are incredibly useful, their role generally isn’t to make decisions about good or bad words. Their role is to define and describe words that you are likely to encounter.
Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and the author of The Grammar Devotional and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
* I like the hyphen and will continue using it for now. It’s a style choice.
Note: An earlier version of this article originally ran in July of 2013.