We use new words all the time, sometimes because of new technology, sometimes because of trends, and occasionally because somebody just came up with a really good word that caught on.
To keep their dictionaries relevant, editors need to always be adding these new words and also updating entries to include new meanings for old words, but they don’t just add words as soon as they hear them or see them. The editors carefully watch words to see how they are being used and whether they seem to have some staying power or are just part of a trend that will be gone next year.
How Words Are Chosen
According to the Merriam-Webster website, to be included in the dictionary, a word must “be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time.”
For example, Merriam-Webster added athleisure to the unabridged dictionary, but the editors had been watching the word for a while before they decided to add it. In a "Words We’re Watching” blog post in July of 2015, they wrote “Athleisure refers to casual clothing — like yoga pants, sweat pants, and hoodies — that are designed to be worn both for exercising and for doing (almost) everything else.” They cited recent examples from the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Paste Magazine, and noted that they had at least one citation from way back in 1979. They weren’t quite ready to add it to the dictionary in 2015, but now, in 2016 it made the cut.
I’m betting some of the words they added are familiar to most of you:
- Bitcoin, the digital currency. The first known use of bitcoin was in 2008.
- Urban fantasy, which is a type of fiction that sets fantasy elements such as elves and fairies in urban settings. Urban fantasy is older than bitcoin, with the first known use in 1978.
- TMI, which is an abbreviation for too much information. I use that with my dad because he has a tendency to over share.
- Hella, which you’ve almost certainly heard if you've lived on the West Coast since the early ’90s.’ It’s slang used to mean “very” or “a lot of” as in I get hella excited with they add new words, and They added hella words to the dictionary.
Other words that might sound familiar to you include cold one (to mean “a cold beer”), coconutty (to describe something that tastes of coconut), cold case (to describe an unsolved criminal investigation), toon (as an abbreviation for cartoon), and life hack (which is two words and usually refers to a simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently).