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Finding the Word of the Year

Ammon Shea is a vocabularian, lexicographer, the author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages and a frequent OUPblog contributor.  In light of our Word of the Year 2009 announcement (WOTY) Ammon has taken a closer look at how WOTY is chosen.  In the post below he reveals the process that led to unfriend being chosen as WOTY 2009.

Every year, at about this time, the New Oxford American Dictionary releases its Word of the Year (WOTY), a combination of solid lexicographic practice and a light-hearted look at the changing face of English today. Since there are quite possibly thousands (or at least dozens) of people out there who wonder “where does the Word of the Year come from?” the following is a brief explanation of what this momentous process entails, and what it does not.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Word of the Year is chosen by a group of unruly lexicographers, drunk on whimsy and an inflated sense of their own power, who are hell-bent on introducing silly words into English. So let’s see what actually happens.

The candidates for WOTY are drawn from three main sources, each of which reflects a particular strength of Oxford University Press and its unrivaled language research program. The first of these is the Oxford English Corpus, a database of over two and a half billion words drawn from current English the world over. The corpus is fully searchable, allowing the editors to find words that have either entered the language or changed meaning significantly enough to warrant attention. The use of the corpus allows tracking of words, and the examination of the shifts that occur in geography, register, and frequency of use.

The second body of candidates to merit consideration for the WOTY is composed of those that have been “catchworded” (catchworded words are those that have been identified as new or unusual usages by one of the vast number of readers who provide citations of word use for the OED and other Oxford Dictionaries). An editor who is responsible for new words in English combines the catchworded items into a digital database, a sort of mini-corpus, in which individual words can be analyzed by frequency, register, and region.

The third source for potential Words of the Year comes from the various editors at OUP, who are continually keeping tabs on the varieties of English and the ways in which these varieties are changing. These words come from the editor’s own reading, or from conversations they’ve had, and from lists of new words that are taken from one of the numerous dictionaries published by OUP.

Once the preliminary list of words has been collected it is sent to a group of perhaps 7 or 8 editors, who commence poking at the words with a sharp stick, weeding out those that aren’t in fact new, or which may new, but not yet widespread enough to be more than a regionalism. The words are all checked to make sure that they do not exist in any current dictionary, and that there is sufficient evidence in the Oxford English Corpus, in various forms of print, and on internet search engines to warrant each one’s inclusion.

This list of words is sent around and winnowed to a short list, which is then itself winnowed to a final list, and from the final list a single word is chosen which has been accorded the honor of being the Word of the Year.

Although the process of picking the WOTY is quite similar to that of introducing a word into a dictionary, this status does not guarantee that the word will be included in any future reference works. The word in question may be quite widespread today and have fallen entirely from use within a few years. The WOTY is not a popularity contest, nor is it simply the word that has been used more than any other over the past year. It is a forward-looking examination of one small aspect of our language, one in which the Oxford lexicographers take a chance on picking the word that they think represents the use of language today, and that will continue to have an influence.

It can be a tricky business, trying to figure out which words will stick ahead of time, and there is no shame in making an educated guess that turns out to not be as accurate several years hence as it seems now. James Murray famously decided to leave the word appendicitis out of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary after receiving advice from William Osler (a famous doctor at Oxford) that it was likely not a word that would ever be in widespread use. A short time later the coronation of Edward VII was delayed after he had to undergo an emergency operation for his appendicitis. Although many people wondered why the word was not in the OED, there was no way that Murray could have made the necessary guess to include it.

The WOTY is an attempt to capture some of the breathtaking fluidity of our language, and to look at its semantic change and inventiveness in real time, through the use of solid research, editorial skill, and intuitive guesswork.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca, Lauren. Lauren said: RT @oupblog: Ammon Shea on how OUP picks the Word of the Year #WOTY #unfriend http://bit.ly/1i2dK6 [...]

  2. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by oupblog: Ammon Shea on how OUP picks the Word of the Year #WOTY #unfriend http://bit.ly/1i2dK6

  3. Russell Cross

    From the lexicographer’s perspective, it also has to be an exercise in masochism. As soon as someone announces that X is the Word of the Year, that’s an open invitation for the rest of the world to explain (a) why that’s wrong, (b) what it should be, and (c) how the lexicographers are “out of touch” with “real people.” When it comes to word meanings, you can’t please any of the people any of the time ;)

  4. malclave

    So how do you explain putting a term that is nothing more than a slur into contention, and then not even bothering to refer to the main use of the word?

  5. [...] about the process behind choosing the word of the year, and check out some of the other words that were in the running.  Then let us [...]

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