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
 

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