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Stacking the Deck for Dictionaries

by Erin McKean

For every new word (such as podcast) that makes it into the

New Oxford American Dictionary, there are dozens of other words that the lexicographers have to lay aside, regretfully.

Why do the lexicographers have to lay them aside? Well, first off, even though NOAD (as we like to call it around here) has more than 2000 pages, there just isn’t enough space for all the words the lexicographers would like to include. The last printed edition of the OED had more than ten times as many pages, and even the OED doesn’t have space for every word that has ever flashed across the sky of the English language.

So how do the lexicographers decide which words to include? Well, lexicographers don’t pick the longest words, or the oldest words, or the funniest words, or the prettiest words: they pick (with fingers crossed) the most useful words. What words do they think people will need to read, write, and understand? What words will help the dictionary user the most?

Lexicographers do this by looking at the words people use: a word that hardly anyone uses is probably not that useful. Oxford has more than a billion words of language data (and growing) called the Oxford English Corpus, and by checking the corpus for words that seem useful, and investigating in what contexts words are used, and why, they can (usually) make determinations as to which words need to be in the dictionary (or rather, which words users need to FIND in the dictionary) and which words don’t.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t some sad faces when perfectly lovely words get passed over. Which is why, last year, the New Oxford American Dictionary teamed up with a PRI radio show,
href=”http://nextbigthing.org/”>The Next Big Thing (now sadly defunct) to ask some of our favorite writers to use some of these passed-over words. The idea was, if great writers used the words, their readers might start to use them, too, and then eventually there would be so much evidence of the usefulness of these words that they’d HAVE to go into the dictionary. Someday. Eventually. With any luck.

One of the writers who cheerfully accepted the deck-stacking challenge was Donald Westlake, the Edgar- and Oscar-winning mystery writer. Under the name Richard Stark, Westlake writes hard-boiled novels about the ice-blooded thief, Parker (no first name). And in his latest Parker novel, Ask the Parrot, he included three words for OUP.

What three words? Well, the lexicographers didn’t make it easy for him. The words were blat (a low-quality newspaper), hawasim (used in the Iraqi war to refer to petty thieves or looters), and (this was the best) acheiropoietoi (which comes from the Greek, meaning ‘not made by human hands’, and is used to refer to images, like the Shroud of Turin, that are thought to be of divine, or at least non-human, origins.

And Mr. Westlake came through trumps. Here are his three sentences:

Parker was in the living room, seated on the chair that didn’t face the television set, leafing through yesterday’s local blat.


“They even had a special slang for them. Hawasim, it means looter.” Lindahl shrugged. “I guess it’s not as easy to be a looter in a war zone.”

and, last but not least:

He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown. Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black ocean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption. On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call acheiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.

So — if all goes well, the thousands of Parker fans will assimilate these words and begin to use them, and eventually an avalanche of blats, hawasims, and acheiropoietois, will slide all the way down the mountain of English and land in the dictionary. The lexicographers figure they will need to make some space in the edition of 2025 or so …

If you want to hear the radio segments where the words were pitched and delivered, the links are here and here.

If, while you’re waiting to see these three words in the dictionary, you have other favorite words you want to make sure the Oxford dictionary staff is keeping track of, you can always email your suggestions to [email protected]

Erin McKean is the Editor in Chief of Oxford’s American Dictionaries. Her passion for the oddest and least-accessible corners of the English language has resulted in her new book Totally Weird and Wonderful Words.

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