Expanding America's lexicon might not make Words with Friends any easier, but it might help college students defend themselves against accusations of butchering the language with seemingly nonsensical phrases. "That earworm is such a mash-up" can now be justified as proper English, at least according to one of the world's foremost dictionary publishers.
Last week, Merriam-Webster announced the addition of about 100 new entries--including expanded definitions of existing words--to its updated Collegiate dictionary. The company goes through this process every year when it seeks to renew its copyright. The dictionary's editors add an average of 100 entries each year.
Some new words are more common than others. Man cave, game changer, and bucket list have become a regular part of everyday discourse. Others, however, are more obscure--systemic risk, flexitarian, and copernicium.
Despite the words' new "official" status, several students said Merriam-Webster's recognition wouldn't affect their choice of words.
"I wasn't even aware these weren't in the dictionary," confessed Chris Brunk, a student at Gordon College, in Wenham, Mass.
But making the words official might help settle disputes during Scrabble games, said Joel Stiling, a student at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, N.C.
"Whether or not they make it into the dictionary only makes it harder for those of us trying to read the dictionary from cover to cover," he added, jokingly.
Will Bell, a recent graduate of Cornerstone University, in Grand Rapids, Mich., was more enthusiastic: "I am pumped that they added man cave. In college, my floor was called the man cave. Basically the word is a grown-up version of the boys-only clubhouses that we all wanted back in the day."
And Court Thompson, who plans to attend the University of Arkansas next year, appreciated the addition of the word e-reader, a recognition of technology's ability to change culture: "In my opinion e-readers are bringing in a huge cultural shift from traditional books, [and] should definitely be included in the dictionary."
A language's increasing vocabulary typically mirrors changing areas of culture. In today's English-speaking world, technology and science compose the first source of new terms, followed by the food industry, business and economics, and pop culture. Technology and science are, by far, the most influential. English really started to grow after the invention of the printing press, which reintroduced Greek and Latin classics to a lay audience unfamiliar with the language, said Gavin Richardson, an English professor at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn.
In contrast to other European languages, English has tended to borrow loanwords heavily, said Dr. Michael Pasquale, a linguistics professor at Cornerstone: "A recent estimate has English at over a million words, while German and Spanish are less than half that."
When considering new words to add to the dictionary, Merriam-Webster editors work as a team. Each team is responsible for systematic reading in a number of different areas. This way, the company gets a good "cross-section" of the published world every year. Last year, longtime associate editor Kory Stamper found herself regularly reading eight magazines, including titles such as Time, The Nation, and Christianity Today.
"Right here on my desk are nine books on religion," Stamper said with a laugh. "And around me are seven or eight stacks of magazines on the same subject."
The editors at Merriam-Webster are trained to read. When they see an interesting term, they mark it. Correspondents also send them new words and terms, although the editors usually have spotted them already, Stamper said.
When they're ready to whittle down the list of new entries, the teams review two years of citations and weigh the "accumulated citational evidence", which is summarized using three criteria: The term needs to have a clear meaning; it must have widespread and general use; and it must have a long shelf life, with occurrences in published works sustained over a period of years.
Examples of words that might fail the criteria include "antidisestablishmentarianism," which doesn't appear to have a clearly defined meaning. Pop culture terms also can be hard to define through consistent use. Game changer only made this list this year after a decade-long cycle of appearing and disappearing in print.
In response to the charge that technological influence corrupts the language, Stamper simply points to historical trends.
"Abbreviations have been going in English since the 13th century," she said. Her favorite example is a 1567 poem entitled "After misadventures come good haps," where "haps" stands in for "happenings."
Although many college students probably don't wait expectantly for the new list of words to come out each year, Stamper hopes they'll use the words as an opportunity to have fun with their language. English is a beautiful example of "democracy in action," she said: "Learn how language works. Learn the formal ways of communicating, the semi-formal ways, and the informal ways. But remember--it's not so much what you use as when you use it."