Language Corner

Merriam-Webster and OED add new words: Lorem ipsum, TL;DR, and more

September 24, 2018

“Without revisions, dictionaries die.”

That’s what Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, told a gathering of editors last spring. We hope you agree, and we also hope this column won’t result in “TL;DR.”

With the web, dictionaries can be updated frequently, and Merriam-Webster just dumped a bunch of new words: more than 840. Included in that dump was “TL;DR,” sometimes rendered as lowercase or without the semicolon in the middle.

M-W traces the first usage to 2002, as an informal way to say “too long; didn’t read.” It was used as shorthand in older computer chat rooms or bulletin boards that collectively were called “Usenet groups,” and so came in handy when texting came along. (“Usenet” itself was born at Duke University in 1979, where programmers called themselves “Usenix,” for “users of Unix.” The “Usenix network” became “Usenet,” or so it seems.)

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In this fast-paced world, “TL;DR” developed its own shorthand, as a summary or takeaway, as in “The TL;DR of this column is that dictionaries are going to add new words. Get over it.”

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But whenever new words are added, there is a backlash from people who think dictionaries should be immutable, and language should just stay as it is. M-W acknowledges that, somewhat defensively, by saying: “It’s important to remember that new words are added to the dictionary only when they have already been used by many people—often initially by specialists or subcultures. Then, gradually, a word’s use spreads to the rest of us.”

“TL;DR isn’t a word, it is an initialism,” one person complained in a comment on the post, wondering if M-W was just trying to drive traffic to its site. That might be more plausible if “TL;DR” were in the top lookups of words, but it’s not. And M-W was actually a little late on this: The Oxford English Dictionary included “tl;dr” as a draft addition in 2016.

The OED itself is no slacker when it comes to adding new words: In June, it added or updated 900 entries.

One has to wonder what takes so long for some words and expressions to get into the dictionary. “Imposter syndrome” has been around since the 1980s, but just made it into the OED. It hasn’t yet made it into M-W, but it seems to be having a resurgence: Of the 700 entries in Nexis since 1984, more than 250 of them are in the past year.

The two dictionaries have different philosophies on how something gets in, as Sokolowski explained to the editors’ group. Merriam-Webster is “synchronic,” meaning it concentrates on current, active vocabulary. The OED is “diachronic,” written from a historical perspective. The two philosophies are complementary, not opposed, but that often means a word has to be in use longer to make the OED than it might take to get into M-W.

At least one new entry in the OED should resonate with journalists, who have been using it for years: “Lorem ipsum.” Anyone who has worked in the production of a publication has probably run across “Lorem ipsum,” placeholder or “dummy” type put on a page as it is being designed until the real type shows up. Embarrassingly, it still occasionally escapes into the wild.

Most iterations render the beginning of it something like this: “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.” 

The “Lorem ipsum” passage is apparently taken from a series of essays by Cicero, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, or On the Extremes of Good and Evil. But if you search that text for “Lorem ipsum,” you won’t find it, because it doesn’t exist. Instead, it appears that whoever first picked up that dummy type used an edition where the first word on the page was a continuation of a word hyphenated on the previous page. Here’s how the passage appears in one iteration of the original: “ … qui do lorem ipsum, quia dolor sit, amet, consectetur, adipisci velit…” (Emphasis added.)

Somewhere, words and letters were dropped or added to become our “Lorem ipsum.” As a result, as The Guardian wrote in 2014, it’s gibberish in Latin, just as any translation of it is in English.

The OED’s new “Lorem ipsum” entry says: “Instances of its inadvertent appearance in publications begin in the late 1960s, suggesting that it began to be widely used in publishing around this time. Its popularity is often attributed to its use in samples of body type issued as Letraset dry transfers.” These were sheets of type that could be rubbed off to fill the space on a paper layout, in the days between hot lead and electronic layout. The OED blog elaborates: “However, the use of the first two words of the passage, lorem ipsum, to refer to such text seems to have been a later development; the OED’s first citation is from a 1995 article in the magazine Macworld, which rhetorically asked ‘A little tired of using Lorem ipsum for mock-ups?’”

“Lorem ipsum” is so recognizable nowadays that there is a newsletter, a bookstore, and numerous websites that will randomly generate dummy text for you.

Just remember to replace “Lorem ipsum”  before you publish, or it won’t be just the type that’s mocked up.

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Correction: A previous headline incorrectly stated Merriam-Webster was the only dictionary to add a new entry. This post has been updated.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.