Here is a non-exhaustive list of words you might be surprised to learn are in at least one major dictionary: humblebrag, hangry, obvs, mansplain, subtweet, hate-watch, hive mind and troll (the verb). Though they vary in their meanings, one thing all of these words have in common is that they all, on some level, were born on the internet as made-up words. And though none of these have been part of the popular lexicon for a very long time, they were all deemed to have staying power by some of the most authoritative language institutions still operating today, which tells you something about how rapidly the internet is molding our culture.
From the point of view of someone working for, say, Merriam-Webster, the point of adding new words to the dictionary is to reflect the language in terms of its common (and current) usage. With technology now advancing at an exponential rate, it makes sense that our language would evolve along with it — and, in many cases, stem from the technology itself.
So how does a word born on the internet make it all the way into the hallowed halls of Oxford English Dictionary legitimacy? Here, we examine the lifecycle of made-up words that eventually become “real” ones.
He Tweeted, And It Came To Be
Oftentimes, the words we now consider indispensable originate from a careless flick of one’s wrist.
“Covfefe” is not indispensable (nor is it an official dictionary word), but just about everyone with a browser connection and some knowledge of American current events knows what it’s referring to. Covfefe started as a literal typo in one of Donald Trump’s tweets, and it quickly became shorthand for the absurdist nonsense that is American political theater in our current day and age. The only “dictionary” it actually belongs in is Urban Dictionary, but Macmillan Dictionary did feel compelled to at least address it in a blog entry.
Whether they currently count as legitimate or not, and whether they were begat with a tweet or begat by regular old spoken word, almost all new words are created in the following ways:
- Adding a prefix or suffix to an existing word
- The reverse of this (e.g. the creation of “sleaze” from “sleazy”)
- Combining two existing words into a new compound word
- Giving a new meaning to an existing word
- Making a noun into a verb, or an adjective into a noun, or…
- Taking a person or place name and making it into a word
- Abbreviating an existing word
- Borrowing a loanword from another language
- Reduplication (e.g. flip-flop, cray-cray)
- Total nonsense words
- Mistakes (misspellings, mispronunciations, mistranscriptions)
- Portmanteau (e.g. brunch, infomercial)
From A Tweet To A Trend
There are approximately 5,400 new words created every year, according to the Global Language Monitor. But only about 1,000 made it into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2017.
In order for newly made-up words to gain official status, they have to catch on. And the way that words catch on in popular culture — and especially in internet culture — is by becoming a meme.
A meme isn’t strictly a Reddit or Tumblr joke, which is what the word often refers to. The word “meme” has been around since 1976, and it technically refers to any sort of cultural symbol, idea or behavior that is passed from person to person, spreading and mutating along the way (not unlike a contagion, or a gene).
Because the internet is the internet, memes often behave more like viruses than genes, becoming widely relevant in half a week or less.
From A Meme To Merriam-Webster
In 2013, the word “tweet” became inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary. At the time, the dictionary’s chief editor John Simpson said that “tweet” was added in spite of its newness. Generally, editors try to observe the 10-year rule when selecting new words with enough staying power to add to the dictionary.
With more and more internet lingo becoming rapidly legitimized after just a few years of widespread usage, the quick adoption of new words seems to be the trend lately. On Merriam-Webster’s blog the editors write, “Dictionaries have always been data-driven. A dictionary isn’t an idea museum; it’s a user’s manual for communication.”
Merriam-Webster will add a word to its pages when enough people are using it, and when enough people agree on its meaning. And when enough people are using a new word, it increases the odds that someone at Merriam-Webster will notice it. Dictionary editors are like the talent scouts of language. They’re constantly reading and looking for the next big thing in lexicography.
When a word is noticed, it first enters a searchable database with the original source and context surrounding the word. Sometimes these are brand new words, and sometimes these are new ways of using long-existing words.
Once there’s enough “data” to make a solid case for the word’s frequent, widespread and meaningful use, the dictionary editors will either add the word or table it for later assessment if it’s not yet common enough.
Here’s a fun infographic Merriam-Webster put together to illustrate how words make it into the dictionary.
From Dictionary To Death
Of course, nothing is permanent, and there’s no reason to assume that once a word is added to the dictionary, it’ll just stay there forever.
Every dictionary is different. The Oxford English Dictionary has a policy of never removing words, no matter how archaic. Their aim is to provide a permanent record of the English language.
However, some other dictionaries (including the Concise Oxford English Dictionary) will occasionally trim words from their volumes to make room for new words as they come in. The Macquarie Dictionary tries not to drop as many words as it adds, but there are tangible limits to how big a book (or even a website) can really be. Besides — when was the last time you encountered a video jockey?