Sprachgefühl: Sometimes, you just know…

Because we are anything but a stagnant society, we need new words. Words are sort of like fashion.

Think of the dictionary as your closet. New designer jeans come in; that silk shirt from the 70’s disco era goes out.

Indeed, new words aren’t only fashionable. They define new trends and technology. Think “tweet.” It’s no longer just for the birds. And when it comes to messaging and communication, it’s important to know not just the old standards, but also the new words that are constantly emerging.

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever
(Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Why is it important? Well, with the wrong word you can lose your connection with your audience, which is fast evolving as well. Suppose you try to communicate with them when wearing a 70’s disco era silk shirt. See the problem?

It would be hard to find a better expert on the subject of new words and how they enter our vocabulary than Peter Sokolowski, Editor At Large at Merriam-Webster, Inc., which publishes dictionaries.

Yearly, new words are added to the dictionary because their usage increases. Last year’s list included, for instance, “bromance.” Blending “brother” and “romance,” bromance is a strong non-sexual relationship between men.

“Helicopter parent” was also added. That’s a parent who’s overly involved in his or her child’s life.

Each year brings new surprises with the words we have available to us. We thank Mr. Sokolowski for his explanation of Merriam-Webster‘s work to give us a current reference tool of all the words waiting to be put to good use – the dictionary.

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How many new words on average does the dictionary recognize and incorporate each year?
About 100 words and senses or meanings are added to Merriam-Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary each year in our annual copyright update.

Is there a pattern that you see to these new words?
We see new words every year from online technology (social media, blogosphere, malware, phishing, webinar); foreign food terms (soju, panino, edamame, shawarma, chai); pop culture (bromance, regift, chick flick, bling-bling); and medical terms (hospitalist, norovirus, glycemia, SARS). These four categories are always well represented in our updates.

How are new words chosen? Is there certain criteria that has to be met?
Part of the routine of editors is to read and look for new terms and new uses of existing words. We make citations of the new usages and collect them in a database — now about 17 million of them. These are hand-chosen examples with full context and bibliography, and they give us good examples of the word in use. Then we can judge both their frequency and currency using the modern corpus-based research that we have in-house or online. In a sense we combine the old-fashioned handmade practice of what we call “reading and marking” with the vast search capacities of online data gathering.

It’s always fun to learn what new words have been selected to be added to the dictionary. But this is a serious undertaking. Who decides when a word has matured to the point of being part of dictionary?
Once we notice that a given usage is increasing in use and likely to be encountered by a reader, it’s time for that word to go into the dictionary. There’s no committee or advocacy. We notice words and then accumulate evidence until it’s clear that the word is here to stay and is used by many people. This process is different for each and every word: it took sixty years for finalize to get into the dictionary, but blog was entered after only four years.

Why do we keep adding words to our vocabulary? Is this limited to the English language or do other languages face the same challenge?

William Shakespeare

There’s a very simple answer: we have new things to name, so we need new words to name them.

All languages change, but English has a longer tradition of absorbing new words, since English is such a mongrel language. Shakespeare himself coined many words, and he’s a good example of the rich and playful tradition of coinage in English. Some languages seem to express an aesthetic of restriction, whereas English seems to reflect an aesthetic culture of constant expansion.

With all the linguists watching closely, I can only imagine the reaction you sometimes receive about new words. How do you defend your choices?
I’m not aware of criticism from linguists — indeed, there is no responsible alternative in modern linguistics to the strict fact-based research upon which descriptive dictionaries are built. Linguists know that language changes and that dictionaries exist to record those changes.

Language changes just fast enough that we notice. Finalize was heavily criticized as bad English fifty years ago, but it probably seems like standard English to most people today. Access as a verb was slangy computer jargon twenty years ago; today we all find it essential.

Acknowledging change is not rejecting standards. The fact that, say, ain’t and chillax are found in the dictionary does not mean that we should use those words in homework or job applications. The first part of a dictionary entry is a report on facts: the existence of the word and its spelling, pronunciation, and definition. This also includes the date of the first use of the word — a historical fact. But then a good dictionary will provide usage information, through labels like slang, example sentences that show context, and explicit usage notes. Usage guidance has to do with standards and tradition, region and education, prejudice and culture — all based on evidence.

Do you have a favorite “new” word in the dictionary or in language that hasn’t yet made it into the dictionary?
I like the word gastropub. It names something quite specific and is a useful term — I hope to see it in the dictionary someday!

The Eagle in London is known for being the first gastropub, a portmanteau of gastronomy and pub. (Credit: Flickr user mlazopoulou)

Any recommendations that you’d give to marketing and communications professionals out there about their word choice?
We must remember that we’re all judged by how we use language. So be careful. Good writing — like good spelling — may go unnoticed precisely because it does what it’s supposed to do: express an idea clearly and appropriately. When we notice a word that is misspelled or an idea that is awkwardly expressed, it’s at the expense of the intended reaction. Having a good sense of language and knowing how to catch the attention of a reader in just the right way becomes not a lucky talent but an essential ability.

At the office we call this sprachgefühl, a word that means “an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate.”

– – –

So there you have it. New words tell us a lot about our society and how it’s trending. If you’re never quite sure about a word, think sprachgefuhl, and let your inner-dictionary be your guide.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
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