What do “carbon footprint,” “webisode” and “staycation” all have in common? All three are new additions to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Merriam-Webster says one of the most common questions it is asked is how a new word gets added to the dictionary. The answer is simple: The word gets used.

When deciding what new words or phrases to include in an updated version of the dictionary (and how to define each), editors study language in use, including which words and phrases people use most often and how they use them.

Most editors at Merriam-Webster spend a bit of time each day reading different books, newspapers, magazines and electronic publications. While reading, they keep an eye out for things like new words or phrases, new spellings and new uses for existing words or phrases.

When editors come across something interesting, they mark the word or phrase and collect information that explains how it is used and what it means. This process is called “reading and marking.”

Once a new word or phrase has been marked, editors enter it into a computer system. They also create a “citation,” which includes three things: the word or phrase, an example of the word or phrase used in context and bibliographic information about its source (magazine, newspaper, etc.).

When a word or phrase becomes a citation, it is simply a contestant in a contest. There is no guarantee that a citation will be added to the dictionary. Before a new word can be added to the dictionary, editors must find enough citations to prove it is widely used.

Having many citations, though, does not guarantee admission into the dictionary. If citations do not provide a clear definition of the word or phrase or if all the citations come from one source, it may be rejected.

New words or phrases must be found in several citations from a wide range of publications over a significant period of time to win their way into the dictionary.

In case you’re wondering, here are the definitions of the new words and phrases introduced at the start of this wonder:

  • carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases (specifically carbon dioxide) emitted by something during a given period.
  • webisode: an episode of a show that may or may not have been telecast but can be viewed at a website
  • staycation: a vacation spent at home or nearby

 

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    • It’s very interesting, we certainly agree, Michael! Thanks for WONDERing about words with us! (Phew, that was a tongue-twister!) :)

    • That’s a SUPER question, Landon! We bet that different colleges offer different curriculum choices, but we know that students who study English read an Old English novel or two. It’s a great history lesson! :)

    • Hi there, Emauri! We think that would be a great way to decide! However, we bet you’ll learn how it’s done– it might surprise you! Thanks for sharing your comment with us! :)

  1. Look out for my new word “verbing” the act of utilizing thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences in a poetic format, while maintaining the art style of “rap” without music. Rythmic expressions, which evoke feeling. The prose tell a story, or provide info about a subject or a word. The refrences are streamed together with irony and quick wit. People who don’t necessarily like rap music could appreciate it.

    • WOW, we like your style, Mary! Your word, verbing, sounds awesome! Thanks for telling us more about it! We’ll be looking for it in future dictionaries! :)

    • Hi Milt, what a great question you’ve formed! We’re glad you’re thinking about all the different factors that go into adding a new word to the dictionary. During the process of “reading and marking”, editors note where they read the new word and who wrote it. We bet you’ll enjoy this Wonder that focuses on one word that was coined by one man: Wonder #1012 WHERE IS CYBERSPACE? http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/where-is-cyberspace/ :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How do words get added to the dictionary?
  • Who decides what words or phrases get added to the dictionary each year?
  • What factors determine whether new words or phrases get added to the dictionary?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

The dictionary adds a handful of new words and phrases each year, but there are thousands of words in the dictionary that may be new to you. Creating your own Word of the Day Dictionary is a great way to boost your vocabulary.

Creating your dictionary is easy. Just visit Merriam-Webster’s Word Central website for the Daily Buzzword. You’ll be king or queen of the spelling bee in no time!

Once you find your buzzword, write it on a piece of paper, along with its definition. When you’re finished, add a drawing to help others understand what the word means.

 

Still Wondering

Tackling new vocabulary doesn’t have to be a struggle. Find some useful activities to help young readers in ReadWriteThink’s Using Word Storms to Explore Vocabulary and Encourage Critical Thinking lesson plan.

 

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