On the Front Lines of English, from “Thirdhand Smoke” to “Newsrotica”
Today we are proud to present Ben Zimmer’s first installment in his new column, From A To Zimmer. To read more about the column click here.
When I told friends that I was taking a job as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, I started getting emails asking, “So how do I get a word in the dictionary?” One college friend, who’s now a pediatrics professor researching the effects of smoking on children, had a specific term that he thought deserved recognition: thirdhand smoke, used to refer to residual tobacco smoke contamination that lingers after a cigarette is extinguished. I had never heard of thirdhand smoke, but it turns out it’s gotten some press attention due to recent research indicating what a serious danger smoke residue poses to infants.
So what are the chances thirdhand smoke might make it into Oxford’s dictionaries as a new entry? I had to tell my friend that I didn’t think this term was going to hit lexicographical paydirt any time soon. Even if some doctors are promoting the expression as a way of boosting public awareness about an underappreciated side-effect of cigarette use, that’s not reason enough (yet) for it to merit inclusion in a dictionary for a general audience. Still, thirdhand smoke has a better prospect of eventually getting in an Oxford dictionary than many recently coined words. It’s got some history behind it already, showing up in newspaper databases going back to the early 1990s. Granted, most of the early uses appear in sarcastic commentary on anti-smoking crusades: if secondhand smoke is bad for you, the joke goes, thirdhand smoke must be even worse! But the term is showing signs of being taken seriously among the medical community, and given time it might catch on among the public at large.
That’s the true test of whether lexicographers think a new word should get some space on a dictionary page: are people using it in a variety of contexts, and does it look like it’s sticking around for a while? Lobbying campaigns for a particular term don’t work without proof that a broad array of people are actually making use of the word and will probably continue to do so. (Oxford English Dictionary editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower discussed one such campaign in Slate last year, when a copywriter launched a quixotic quest to get dictionary recognition for his pet word concepting.)
Oxford’s staff of lexicographers have a wonderful tool to help determine whether a word has caught on widely enough that we need to stand up and take notice. It’s the Oxford English Corpus, and you’ll be hearing a lot about it from me in coming weeks. A corpus is a collection of texts, and the OEC is a massive one, currently encompassing about 1.8 billion words (and counting!). The texts, covering all sorts of genres and source materials, give us tremendous insight into the ways that 21st-century English is evolving. Analyzing the Corpus can readily tell us the trajectory of a new word or phrase, providing sophisticated contextual data for current usage as well. (That’s something you just can’t get from a quick and dirty Google search.)
Trajectories for new words don’t follow any set pattern. Some coinages catch on like wildfire: blog and podcast are two recent examples that went mainstream with alarming speed. Others may be bubbling up in a particular subculture for years before they make the big time. Sometimes we can actually document the moment we think a word came into being. (Blog was evidently coined by Peter Merholz in 1999, while the credit for podcast goes to Dannie Gregoire in 2004.) More often than not, we can’t determine the first person ever to use a particular word or phrase, but armed with the Corpus we can still trace the formative pathways that lead to common usage.
Everyone likes being on the ground floor of a new phenomenon, and neologisms are no exception. At the recent biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America in Chicago, conference organizer (and OUP chief consulting editor for American dictionaries) Erin McKean invited members of the public to bring their coinages to a “New Word Open Mic,” with a panel of lexicographers weighing in on which words seemed to have the best odds for making it into a dictionary some day. Some of the creations were brand-new, like David Epstein’s offering of newsrotica, a label for all the salacious stories that fuel the 24-hour news cycle in the Age of Paris Hilton. The overall winner, by public acclamation, has actually been around for a few years: hangry, nominated by Amy Reynaldo, is an extremely useful adjective to describe a person suffering from hunger-induced crankiness. Will these words ever become common enough to warrant entries in Oxford’s dictionaries? Perhaps, but only if they become part of people’s ordinary, unselfconscious speech and writing. So if you like newsrotica or hangry, start using them and see what happens!
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.