It’s spring, and a young lexicographer’s fancy turns to … love of new words.
Many dictionaries update online periodically, and March and April were the periods for the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary.com, and Merriam-Webster.
M-W says it added “more than 640 new words” in April; The OED says it added “More than 650 new words, senses, and subentries” in March”; and Dictionary.com says it added “more than 300 new words and definitions” in April.
The new entries have little overlap, not surprising given that different dictionaries have different audiences and purposes. As we wrote last fall, M-W’s editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, says that M-W is “synchronic,” concentrating on current, active vocabulary. The OED is “diachronic,” written from a historical perspective. Dictionary.com is based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, but it also uses the American Heritage and HarperCollins dictionaries to supplement its main database, so it’s not a single source, but it is also “synchronic.” And words make it into dictionaries at different speeds. As M-W said, “Each word follows its own path at its own pace before its use is widespread enough to be included in a dictionary.”
For example, our column last fall noted that “imposter syndrome” had just made it into the OED, despite having been around since at least the 1980s. It’s now made it into M-W and Dictionary.com as well.
You’re probably not surprised to hear that many of the new words in the OED are British, and that you may never have heard them. For example, “dof,” an adjective meaning “Stupid, dim-witted; uninformed, clueless.” Or “baff” and “baffie,” a slipper, usually one that is worn out. Or “chuddies,” “Short trousers, shorts. Now usually: underwear; underpants.”
You’re also probably not surprised that many of the new words arise from changes in politics and society. Both the OED and Dictionary.com added “Latinx,” for a person of Latin American descent who does not want to be identified as either a “Latino” (male) or a “Latina” (female). M-W added it in last fall’s update. But the OED also added “Latin@” as a second gender-neutral term, calling it “chiefly U.S.” and tracing it to 2000, eight years earlier than “Latinx.”
“Gender nonconforming” was added to M-W, as were “top surgery” and “bottom surgery,” the procedures to have someone conform physically to their gender identity. Dictionary.com covers “nonconforming” in its “gender-variant” entry, though “variant” has a tinge of negativity and should probably be avoided.
Dictionary.com added “false flag,” defining it as “an attack or other hostile action that obscures the identity of the participants carrying out the action while implicating another group or nation as the perpetrator.” The OED added that in January 2018, though, as we wrote last fall, the term traces to 1569, albeit in a figurative sense. “False flag” hasn’t yet appeared in M-W. Dictionary.com also just got around to adding “dumpster fire,” which we wrote about three years ago. It’s already in M-W, but not in the OED, although you will find “dumpster diver” there, which also appears in M-W and under “dumpster diving” in Dictionary.com. (For the diehard copy editors out there, remember that “dumpster” lost trademark status in 2015 and is no longer capitalized.)
“Safe space” showed up in Dictionary.com to mean “a place that provides a physically and emotionally safe environment for a person or group of people, especially a place where people can freely express themselves without fear of prejudice, negative judgment, etc.” M-W added it in early 2017; the OED isn’t there yet.
M-W added definitions for “snowflake.” Besides being a crystalline form of precipitation, it can also mean “someone regarded or treated as unique or special” and “someone who is overly sensitive,” as we wrote two years ago.
And finally, the OED caught up with the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy by adding “grassy knoll.” As its entry notes, it has gone beyond the theory that there was a second gunman “positioned on a grass verge,” and now means “anything considered as a major factor or issue in any investigation around which conspiracy theories have been constructed.” Those may be the same people who wave the “false flags.”
Though it’s a British dictionary, the OED beats the homegrown ones in pointing out a purely American phenomenon. “Diachronic,” indeed.