New dictionary words as your research paper topic

In late spring, Merriam-Webster announced the new words it will add to the 2014 edition of its dictionary. New words are often influenced by technology, politics, economics and pop culture. College students, not only the English major, linguistics major or journalism major, can have fun analyzing the new words for their origins, dictionary definition versus everyday usage, pertinence and persistence in the English language.

Merrian – Webster announced new entries for the dictionary in 2014. (Credit: Mark Montehermoso)

Merrian – Webster announced new entries for the dictionary in 2014. (Credit: Mark Montehermoso)

Here are some of the new additions to the new Merriam-Webster dictionary, an explanation of how words are chosen for dictionaries and an f-bomb!

Here some of the new words:

  • Catfish – a technology-related term that refers to a person who sets up a false social networking profile for deceptive purposes.
  • Crowdfunding – the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people, especially from the online community.
  • Freegan – an activist who scavenges for free food (as in waste receptacles at stores and restaurants) as a means of reducing consumption of resources.
  • Gamification – the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation.
  • Steampunk – science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.
  • Turducken – a boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey.

“Merriam is a bit behind the times in finally including ‘steampunk,’ which has been around for at least 30 years,” declared Steven Poole in “Just how new are the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s new words?” posted May 20, 2014, in the Guardian. “Even the hideously kitschy ‘tweep’ (a Twitter follower) is as old as 2008.… The cultural routine of the dictionary’s ‘new words’ list, then, is not about cutting-edge linguistic news; it’s merely a welcome excuse for word-fanciers worldwide to indulge in another little fiesta of pleasurable pedantry. Everybody wins.”

How a word gets into the dictionary

Dictionary editors monitor usage of words as well as their meanings. They scour books, newspapers, magazines and, in the past two decades, electronic media looking for new words and phrases, variant spellings, inflected forms and common words used in new ways (as in “catfish”). They choose words that have gained prominence and that appear in common usage by many.

Technological development accounts for many new words. Pertaining to the new words in the 2014 edition, Peter Sokolowski, editor at Merriam-Webster, remarked in “A Sample of New Dictionary Words for 2014“: “So many of these new words show the impact of online connectivity to our lives and livelihoods… [and show] that the Internet has changed business in profound ways.”

Political and economic realities bring many words into common usage. In 2012, “underwater” was added to Merriam-Webster to describe a homeowner who owed more on his mortgage than his property was worth. Medical situations also account for new word usage. In the early 1980s, the rapid epidemic and spread of a new virus allowed for the word “AIDS” to gain instant inclusion into dictionaries. Other influences are culinary, fashion-oriented or from pop culture.

Trendy vs. here to stay

Dictionary editors need to debate about whether to include a word that is popular right now versus waiting to see if it can stand the test of time and has indeed entered our language for the long haul. Remember rawmaish, pannychis and gallimaufry? Editors don’t want to add a word now only to remove it in a few years.

Jenny Davis, in “Merriam-Webster Adds New Words: What Took So Long?” posted on the Society Pages May 21, 2014, found that strategy outdated. “The logic of staying power and avoidance of trendiness made sense when 1) dictionaries were made out of paper and 2) trendy words were spoken instead of recorded. However, now that dictionaries are digital and trendy words are documented, I contend that we should cast as broad a definitional net as possible.” Davis sees a time when later generations will read historical documents of our time and need only hover over an unfamiliar word and see its definition instantly.

The f-bomb

Swearing is also highly influential to language. In 2012 the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary included “f-bomb” in its list of new words. Associate editor Kory Stamper and her staff traced the usage of f-bomb to a 1988 Newsday story in which Mets catcher Gary Carter talked about how he had given up speaking profanities including the f-bomb. “It’s a word that is very visually evocative. It’s not just the f-word. It’s the f-bomb. You know that it’s going to cause a lot of consternation and possible damage,” said Stamper, reported in “Mainstream Dictionary Adds ‘F-Bomb’ Entry,” by Leanne Italie in Charleston Gazette, August 14, 2012.

Check out Questia’s Communications library for information on language, linguistics and other word usage topics. Visit the CengageBrain blog post Words you need to know: ‘Selfie’ is Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year by Alana Joli Abbott to compare how different dictionaries look at new words. 

What are some words you and your friends use that you think should be added to the dictionary?

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