Originally created 08/07/03

Dictionary changes with modern language



Say what?

That is what many users of Merriam-Webster's 11th edition Collegiate Dictionary might say as they stumble over words that may or may not be used in everyday conversation.

Frankenfood (genetically engineered food), PDA (personal digital assistant), supermom (a mom who does it all), and self-tanner are a few of the more than 10,000 new words and meanings added in the 11th edition, Merriam-Webster associate editor Tom Pitoniak said in a telephone interview from Springfield, Mass.

"These words show how much of our culture our language reflects," Mr. Pitoniak said. "Culture is obviously a diverse thing, so, of course, our language is." The process of adding words and reviewing and changing existing words (more than 100,000 words underwent definition changes) is long, with each new Merriam-Webster edition publishing every 10 years. During that time, Mr. Pitoniak said, Merriam-Webster staff review hundreds of materials such as magazines and the Web to look for new words and the manner in which they're used.

Staff members vary depending on specialties and backgrounds. For example, associate and science editor Michael Roundy focuses on new terms used in science and technology - something Mr. Pitoniak said he would not mess with, because his specialty is English.

"Electronic technologies have contributed one of the largest segments of new words to this edition," Mr. Roundy said. "There are also new senses for existing words, like browse (the Internet), burn (music onto CDs), and lurk (in chat rooms)."

New words inspired by the technological revolution include dot-commer, hotlink and PDA. Medical innovations have brought words such as heart-healthy and Botox into the dictionary.

New words are filed and worked on to determine their orientations and meanings, Mr. Roundy said - the basis of a 15.5 million-citation word bank Merriam-Webster staffers must sort through, evaluate and choose finalists from. The process requires patience and dedication.

"Defining can be hard. You really have to boil things down, you have to be accurate but don't want to be too wordy. In things like science, you end up bringing in other terms," Mr. Pitoniak said. "It's a particular kind of craft to capture the meaning of a word. You have to pay attention to every single word you use."

The revolution in technology has challenged the Collegiate Dictionary itself to change. Within its shrink-wrapped packages is not only a dictionary, but also a CD-ROM and membership access to the online dictionary, Mr. Pitoniak said. Misty Upton, communication relations manager for the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Amarillo, Texas, said the 11th edition has been in stock for about six to eight weeks, and store officials anticipate a good response to the new collegiate.

"It will definitely incite interest because of how demanding colleges and high schools have become," Ms. Upton said. "I'm sure some questions will be asked about new words in the dictionary, but it has to be in there if it's something that's used in everyday conversation."