How Does a Word Become a Word?



The English language is about 1,400 years old. One of the earliest-known English dictionaries, The Elementarie (1582), contained 8,000 words.

As of January 2020, English now includes more than one million words—a figure that differs from words accepted in dictionaries, which can range from 170,000 to 470,000 depending on the source.

Even if we discuss 470,000 formally accepted words, that still leaves more than a half million still wandering. Some might then wonder how one finds a home in a dictionary.

Always tracking and researching English usage, dictionary writers and editors stay busy adding new words and updating the meanings and applications of existing ones. For a word to be added to a dictionary on the gatekeepers’ watch, it must typically:

• be used across a wide area by many people who agree on its meaning
• establish that it has staying power.

As an example, someone in Oklahoma starts to use the word snote to describe a sneeze that sounds like a musical note.

The word begins to appear locally through e-mails, websites, social media, and television. From there, it moves into the mainstream reaching regional and national audiences, and before long, people are using the word on both coasts.

By this time, dictionary writers and editors have already noted the word, its sources, and its context in their databases. If the word continues to perpetuate and its meaning stands firm, they will consult with other colleagues to determine if snote to mean “a sneeze that sounds like a musical note” has achieved sufficient permanence; if so, they will add it to the dictionary.

If on the other hand the word begins to fizzle out as a trend, the word might still circulate, but it will not be formally validated. It could, however, be reviewed again in the future.

With those thoughts in mind, let’s look at some new words, existing words with added meanings, and words of varying ages that were still popular in recent decades but have since been petering out.

New Word (part of speech, approx. first use) New Meaning
bucket list (n., 2005–10) a list of things a person wants to achieve or experience, as before reaching a certain age or dying
unfriend (v., 2005–10) to remove a person from one’s list of friends or contacts on social media
hashtag (n., 2005–10) a word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#), used within a social-media message to identify a keyword or topic of interest and prompt a search for it
selfie (n., 2000–05) a photograph taken with a mobile device by a person who is also in the photograph, especially for posting on social media
blogger (n., 1995–2000) one who writes about topics, experiences, observations, or opinions, etc., on the Internet
Old Word Added Meaning
mouse (n., before 900) a hand-held device moved about on a flat surface to direct the cursor on a computer screen
browse (v., 1400–50) to search for and read content on the Internet
cookie (n., 1695–1705) a message or a segment of data containing information about a user, sent by a web server to a browser and sent back to the server each time the browser requests a web page
stream (v., 13th century) to transfer digital data in a continuous stream, esp. for immediate processing or playback
tweet (n.,1768) a post made on the Twitter online message service
Fading Word Meaning
gal (n., 1785–95) young woman
slacks (n., 1815–25) trousers for casual wear
groovy (adj., 1937) hip, trendy; marvelous, excellent
court (v., 1125–75) to seek the affections of someone to establish a committed relationship
go steady (v., 1900) to date someone exclusively
jalopy (n., 1928) beat-up used vehicle

What do you think—are there any words not yet in the dictionary that should be, or any now present that should be removed? Your input will be considered for a future article revisiting the relevance of words.

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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16 Comments on How Does a Word Become a Word?

16 responses to “How Does a Word Become a Word?”

  1. Liz Jameson says:

    I love the term “pig slice,” originally a Sniglet from Not Necessarily the News. I brought this to the attention of Martha Barnette of NPR’s A Way with Words, and she loved it and said she would use it. It refers to the very last piece of anything put out for public consumption — no one wants to “be a pig” and take the last piece. This started with pizza but can be extrapolated to anything, which I’ve proven at work. You know that last donut that just sits there? (Or half donut?) The last piece of candy in the bowl? The last forlorn half bagel drying out while everyone passes it by? I even put out a stack of magazines free for the taking, but by the end of the day, you guessed it — the last magazine in the pile went unclaimed, though it was of an identical nature to the others. Long live the pig slice! Try it — you’ll see how true it is.

  2. Sher says:

    Yes, the English language is changing. I described someone as a rake the other day, and no one could understand why I called someone a garden tool.

  3. Roy Warner says:

    Terrific. I’m a 71 y/o semi-retired NY trial lawyer. I still tend to use the “fading” words, except for “gal” and “jalopy” which were frequently used when I was a boy in the ’50s.
    Groovy was in the mid-’60s. But I tend to use be-bop and beatnik words: “solid,” “cool,” “square,” “pad,” “bread,” “threads,” etc.

  4. Buckley says:

    Another fading word is “grand.” I hear this often in movies from the ’30s and ’40s but almost never today.

  5. Angela says:

    Gal and jalopy are still used in Jamaica.

  6. Mrs A. says:

    I’ve had tutees say “liberry” instead of “library”! Does that mean, as noted in the article re the process in which a word is added to the dictionary, that should this pronunciation persist and become even more widespread, that it will be added to our dictionary as a legitimate pronunciation? For me, that’s a frightening thought!

  7. David Bredhold says:

    Beater – equivalent to jalopy.

  8. Prasad VSSN says:

    Interesting article. It is the character of a living and vibrant language to acquire new words, to change the meaning of old words, and to formulate new word combinations. Over the years, English has absorbed hundreds of words from other languages. Thanks for the write-up.

  9. William Steigelmann says:

    This article was both useful and interesting, but there is another category that should be added: Changed Meaning. My 1984 Webster’s II Dictionary defines “Semite” as “One of the Middle Eastern people of Caucasian stock comprising chiefly the Jews and Arabs but in ancient times also including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Arameans, and Phoenicians.” It also defines “Semitic” as: “Of or pertaining to the Semites, esp. Jewish or Arabic.” For the past decade, the term seems to have been applied exclusively as a synonym for any person who is Jewish, even persons whose parents and grandparents never lived in the Middle East. If a writer means “Jewish,” why don’t they use this term instead of an ambiguous one?

    • We recently touched on the category of changed meanings in our post Leaning on the Evolution of Meanings. We plan to follow up with more such words in the future. It’s certainly possible that the words Semite and semitic are undergoing change. We could not find any definitive treatment of these words in either the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook.

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