Doesn't OED look like an emoticon for a man in a canoe?
February 8, 2007 11:13 AM   Subscribe

When does a word attain enough critical mass to enter a dictionary?

We've seen the word "pareidolia" here before. It has been used in at least one newspaper, and it's all over the web. However it's not in the OED, Merriam-Webster, Webster's Third, Encyclopedia Brittanica, or any other credible source I could find. I was called out on my use of it the other day and can't back myself up any further than Wikipedia. So, what cabal and conspiracy is responsible for it's mongrel word status? And can we ever expect to see pareidolia legitmized?
posted by kuujjuarapik to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 


Wikipedia references Word Spy which traffics in all sorts of new words that aren't in dictionaries yet. Not all words are in dictionaries—the ones that get there had to start elsewhere.
posted by grouse at 11:30 AM on February 8, 2007


A great story you will probably like.
posted by rhizome at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2007


How is "pareidolia" pronounced?
posted by chillmost at 11:43 AM on February 8, 2007


From here:
bingley
At what point do you decide a word is common enough to warrant inclusion or just an idiosyncrasy of a small group?

Erin McKean (Guest Speaker)
We decide on a need-to-know basis: that is: will people other than this in-group ever need to know a word? It doesn't have to be strict utilitarianism; sometimes they might like to know a word just for entertainment value. Does anyone know the word "farb"? That's a good example of a word on the brink.
(Discussion continues from there.)

A great story you will probably like.

Aargh!
posted by languagehat at 11:48 AM on February 8, 2007


another good article. Working as the only designer in a marketing department, I'm prone to believe that when enough marketeers (I mean isn't that job description a horrific enough use of language?) implement a word in their weighty but essentially vacuous tomes it is automatically granted dictionary status. Impactful status at that!
posted by nickehsmith at 11:52 AM on February 8, 2007


NYT: In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word
The downside of the new ease with which citations can be found, Ms. McKean said, is that words sometimes enter the dictionary too quickly. "We occasionally take words out," she said. "We thought they were working, and they just ended up not."
NPR: Googling for new words: "Erin McKean, editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary, discusses how lexicographers are using technology in their search for new vocabulary and the changing meaning of words."
posted by languagehat at 11:54 AM on February 8, 2007


nickehsmith: No offense, but what does that link have to do with the question?
posted by languagehat at 11:55 AM on February 8, 2007


Different dictionaries have different standards and sources they use for word inclusion. From here:

Lexicographers -- i.e., dictionary makers -- get their definitions by observing how we -- the people -- use words. To do this, they collect samples of our discourse and from those samples they compile definitions. These samples are almost always drawn from writing because:

(1) written discourse is easier to collect, organize, and examine than is spoken discourse; and

(2) until this century, writing was the only way to preserve discourse

The result is that when we look up a word's "meaning," what we actually find is a distillation of how people -- especially writers -- have used that word over the years. So, it seems that we have a paradox: To find the meaning of a word, we consult a book written by people who found the meaning of the word by consulting us.

The paradox is easily resolved, however, by realizing that when we look up a word in a dictionary, we do not find the word's "meaning" -- i.e., we do not find some ideal Platonic definition existing outside human discourse -- rather, what we find is a summary of the ways people use this word to communicate with other people.

The dictionary supplies us with this information by taking a sample -- albeit a non-random and writer-biased sample -- of how people have used it. This explains why different dictionaries can define the same word differently: their samples are different. For example, the COD skews its selection in favour of writers writing thirty or more years ago, whereas Webster's 9th uses more up-to-date written sources, as well non-literary sources; for example, they quote Art Linkletter and Mae West.


I think it's especially interesting that dictionaries -- the main tools of prescriptivist forces -- have traditionally ignored speech. I'll bet this greatly influences linguistic evolution. The coterie of people who write and publish get to set the standard. (If there were vocal/aural dictionaries, would 'nucular' be less despised?)
posted by painquale at 12:37 PM on February 8, 2007


And re: your post title... yes, it does!
posted by painquale at 12:40 PM on February 8, 2007


If there were vocal/aural dictionaries, would 'nucular' be less despised?

Only if we also started to have a phonetic orthography. "Nucular" is listed as a pronunciation in major American English dictionaries.
posted by grouse at 12:48 PM on February 8, 2007


Thanks for all the answers. So, it looks like a cabal of 50 at the OED and Erin McKean and friends are holding this one up? It just seemed weird that when R. Mutt asked his question here, there were 3 people that knew the word within 5 minutes. I'd say that makes the word sufficiently cromulent for a nice warm home somewhere off the web. Oh well.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:25 PM on February 8, 2007


I think it's especially interesting that dictionaries -- the main tools of prescriptivist forces -- have traditionally ignored speech. I'll bet this greatly influences linguistic evolution.

That's quite a set of misunderstandings packed into two sentences.

dictionaries -- the main tools of prescriptivist forces

Au contraire, they're the main tools of descriptivist forces, which is why prescriptivists spend so much time bitching about them.

dictionaries... have traditionally ignored speech

Huh? What do you think those pronunciations are? Dictionaries for languages with a standard written form use it for entries, for obvious reasons; dictionaries for the many languages without a standard written form use a consistent graphic representation devised by a linguist that makes it as easy as possible to find the desired word.

I'll bet this greatly influences linguistic evolution.

In what way? Do you think people flip through dictionaries before deciding how to form their next sentence? People say what they're going to say, some of it gets written down, and dictionaries try to record it for posterity. You're putting the cart before the horse.
posted by languagehat at 2:28 PM on February 8, 2007


I'd say that makes the word sufficiently cromulent for a nice warm home somewhere off the web.

And it will almost certainly be in the larger dictionaries in a few years if it keeps getting used. But you really can't expect printed dictionaries to instantly reflect every word that crops up. They have to make sure it's in fairly general use and that it's going to stick around.
posted by languagehat at 2:30 PM on February 8, 2007


I wouldn't expect printed dictionaries to be so up to the minute. I would expect that their online services would be a little more timely.
This reminds me a lot of the Wikipedia/Brittanica debate. Makes me wish for something more timely, but still well edited or reviewed. So I wonder, which online dictionary is considered most up-to-date?
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2007


I would expect that their online services would be a little more timely.

You're mistaking the purpose of dictionaries. Why would they want to immortalize every bit of lexical fluff that comes down the pike? For that, there's Urban Dictionary. What "real" dictionaries (for lack of a better word) try to do is record the generally accepted word stock of a language; this is very tricky, for all sorts of reasons (some words are used relatively rarely but still need to be there, others are widespread but vanish as quickly as they arose), and each dictionary makes a different set of decisions, which is why those of us with a professional need for them try to have all the major ones in relatively recent editions. But "up to the minute" is not what they're about.

At the moment, the most up-to-date print dictionary is the New Oxford American; according to that Wikipedia entry, it's bundled with the Mac OS X v10.4 operating system. I don't think any of the "real" online dictionaries are more up-to-date than their print versions except for the OED, which is slowly updating its online third edition in advance of the eventual print version.
posted by languagehat at 5:11 PM on February 8, 2007


I didn't really mean to get dragged into a debate here. But it's my fault. I was sloppy. Let me try to be clearer.

Huh? What do you think those pronunciations are?

My mention of 'nucular' is clouding what I meant to say; I wasn't talking about pronunciation. What I mean is this: dictionaries (at least now) don't include epithets like CUL8R and other text-message-isms. That's (partly, at least now) because they don't include text messaging and e-mail in their source materials. What I bet is that, in the same way text messaging uses words that don't get included in the dictionary, English oral communication contains many words that don't get included in the English dictionary. A large part of the reason for this is that the types of cultures and communities that are involved in producing the written works used as source material for dictionaries are a small subset of the English-using community. This is changing, of course.

Do you think people flip through dictionaries before deciding how to form their next sentence?

Not literally. But I do think that people change words when they get underlined by Microsoft Word, I do think that high school teachers tell students not to use words if they're not in the dictionary, I do think students are unused to writing formally and use the dictionary as a corrective measure, I do think editors of many publications consult dictionaries if they're not sure whether an author's word is "good," etc. You have a very refined notion of how dictionaries are used -- and I agree that it is how they should be used -- but people use dictionaries to resolve debates about word use and word meaning all the time. (Ever seen someone open an essay "The OED defines x as y" when trying to elucidate a concept?) In fact, I think most people think that's a primary purpose of dictionaries: they're for correcting your spelling and word usage.

Dictionaries are tools of descriptivists in production -- descriptivists decide what goes in them. And they can be used descriptively -- to give a hint as to how an author is using a word based on past usage of the word. But I think they're used prescriptively, and hence wrongly, a heck of a lot of the time, and I bet this has a measurable effect on linguistic change. (Though, this is a sociological point and I concede I might be wrong here.)
posted by painquale at 5:21 PM on February 8, 2007


Painquale, you may be interested to learn about the Dictionary of American Regional English, which was collected orally. I can complain of it only that it's not done yet; it's a beautiful piece of work, and of course it concentrates on the local, the colloquial, the oral. That said, for those reasons it will be disqualified on sight by any prescriptivist schoolma'am who's looking for a weighty tome with which to bash an ignorant or uppity underling. (Pity, for weighty indeed it is.)

But yeah, there's this notion among the linguistically-insecure public that something is or isn't a real word. I hear it all the time: 'Ack, I just said "persnicketiness". Is that a word?'—as if somewhere some authority, apart from the communicating public, were busy inventing English and releasing official upgrades every year and a half. I like to reply by busting out a touch of practicality, followed by waving around my Linguist Powers (woo-hoo, I have a BA!) in all the pomp and circumstance I can manage (without laughing out loud):

'We seemed to understand what you meant, didn't we?'

'Yes, I think so,' concedes my nervous interlocutor.

'Then, by the powers vested in me by the Glorious Mystical Legion of Lexicographers and the Continental Congress, I proclaim and pronounce "persnicketiness" an Official Word, and command that it be enrolled in the Verbarium Anni, to be held evermore in respect and nevermore in doubt, so long as Earth shall stand or English be spoken. So let it be written; so let it be done. Ecce verbum, palabra jot.'

Now, wouldn't that be a much funner way to compile dictionaries? Yes, dang it. 'Funner'. Don't make me say all that boilerplate again. Actually, with the existing stigma against 'funner', my authority as a Legionnaire Lexicographer may not be sufficient. Ask Languagehat to do it; I believe he's a Dominus Descriptivator. Unless he's from Massachusetts Grand Legion, in which case he's a Knight of Saint Noam. Different jurisdiction, same rank, you know.
posted by eritain at 11:35 PM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was called out on my use of it the other day and can't back myself up any further than Wikipedia.

If you need another word, apophenia is pretty darn close. It's backed up by about as canonical a source as one can find.
posted by juv3nal at 12:05 AM on February 10, 2007


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