The people who make dictionaries are tough jobs. The hardest part: figuring out which new words have gained enough foothold in the language to earn a place in the dictionary.
It’s hard because they’re not in charge. You’re. Lexicographers spend all day looking for new words and new ways in which people use old words. You search various “corpora” or language databases to see how often the terms appear. Then they try to assess whether the word is so firmly anchored that it justifies a place in the dictionary.
Often times they get it right. In other cases, words do not have the stamina that lexicographers have expected. Here are a few dictionary additions that flopped.
Crisphead (1966): In a year when “Acidhead,” “Blitzed,” “Qualude,” “Druggie,” “Headshop,” “Meth” and “Mind-Blowing” first made their way into Merriam-Webster’s “Crisphead.” “thought probably sounded like a groovy newcomer to the English language. But did we really need another word for iceberg lettuce? Apparently not. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer tool, which counts the number of times words appear in books, âCrispheadâ (if you will) peaked in the late 1980s and its use has declined by about 85% since that time.
Hahnium (1970): Four years later, the English language seems to have come down from its journey. âClonazepamâ, âClotrimazoleâ, âClozapineâ, âCognitive therapyâ and âcomorbidâ together with âmedicalizeâ, âMiconazoleâ, âMicroaggressionâ, âObeseâ and âT-cellâ took their place in the dictionary to reflect the weighty new sobriety of the language. Also in Merriam’s class of 1970 was a new synonym for dubnium, a short-lived radioactive element that apparently didn’t need another name. “Hahnium”, a word for Dubnium, became popular for a while, but collapsed in the 1990s.
Axion (1978): Science was still making a splash in American speech in the late 1970s. âBioenergyâ, âBitmapâ, âCampylobacteriosisâ, âFree Electron Laserâ, âGene Splicingâ, âInformation Technologyâ and âNanostructureâ took place at Merriam-Webster. But not every scientific concept has staying power. “Axion,” which means “a hypothetical subatomic particle of low mass and energy that is believed to exist due to certain properties of the strong force,” peaked in 1988 and crashed 76% by 2019.
Buppie: (1986): Hey, do you remember the 80s – a time when people thought jeans should be acid washed and Eddie Murphy was a singer? Flatness and indulgence came back, bringing dictionary entries like “Goldener Fallschirm”, “Infomercial” and “Crony Capitalism” (1981) and “Blush Wine”, “Spendy” and “Horndog” (1984), followed by “Stress”. ball â,â stair-stepper âandâ unibrow â(1988). But in contrast to the 1981 hit “Yuppie”, the 1984 successor “Buppie”, a yuppie who was also black, didn’t make it through the language and only appeared 1% as often as “Yuppie” at its peak.
Digerati (1992): Do you think the 90s were just “meh”? In fact, the new words of the decade show that this was a much more transformative time than your Macarena memories suggest. “Augmented Reality”, “Hacktivism”, “EVOO” (for extra virgin olive oil), “Cytokine Storm” and “meh” itself, all of which were added in 1992, now seem almost forward-looking. Even the 1991 “Zoodle”, which means a zucchini noodle, is becoming more popular every year. At the time, it seemed a sure thing that “Digerati” had a bright future. But no, this noun means a person with computer literacy who peaked just before the turn of the century when they fell off a cliff.
The new millennium: Many words have been added since 2000 and it is impossible to predict which ones will be forgotten. “Bromance” and “Twerking” (2001), “borked” (2002), “sapiosexual” (2004), “copypasta” (2006), “fatberg” (2008), “jegging” (2009), “escape room” (2012), âmanspreadingâ (2014) and ânon-fungible tokenâ (2017) all seem to be heading for the chopping block. But only time will tell.
June Casagrande is the author of The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know. She can be reached at [email protected]
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