Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Getting a word in

A while ago, Michael Quinion, writer and creator of the excellent site World Wide Words, contacted Chambers with a query he had received. His correspondent was curious to find out how you would go about getting a word you had coined into a dictionary.

A surprising number of people have contacted us with a similar query. Neologists can be passionate about the words they create and often view their inclusion in a major dictionary as the ultimate goal.

It is certainly not impossible to coin a word and live to see it entered into a dictionary – every word has started somewhere. However, we often repeat the caveat that we, like other dictionary publishers, don't include words until we have evidence that they have been used by a range of people over a reasonable period of time. No matter how cleverly conceived and logically constructed a word may be, it won't appear in a Chambers dictionary until we are satisfied it is in use.

Lexicographers' decisions on such matters are informed by statistics from corpora – large databases of real language use. At Chambers, we have the Chambers Harrap International Corpus (CHIC), a well-balanced and ever-growing corpus of nearly one billion words. With a little analysis, the citations in such a corpus can show how frequently a word is used and if it is restricted to a small group of users.

It follows that if people do find a coinage useful and start to repeat it, the number and spread of citations will increase and the word could eventually merit a place in the dictionary. So, if you are keen to see a word of your own making entered into a dictionary, you should use it as much as possible, encourage others to do so and, if you have the opportunity, use it in a context with a wider audience, for example a letter to a newspaper or a radio phone-in. Keep a record of when and where you have heard the word because, even with corpus evidence available, there is still room for lexicographers to exercise some personal judgement as to whether a word is likely to become firmly embedded in English. When you have enough evidence to prove that the word has established itself outside your own circle, send all your citations to your dictionary publisher of choice.

If your word makes the cut for the next edition of the dictionary, you can feel content in the knowledge that it has become part of the lexicon!

Mary O'Neill

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