How Do Tech Terms Become Legit?

Podcast is in. PL/1 is out. Mashup is on the short list. But pity the poor 8-track: It came and went without ever making it into The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary.

The ephemeral nature of high-tech terminology poses a challenge to dictionary editors, who tend to adopt new words over a period of years -- or decades. If technology moves quickly, the adoption of high-tech terminology into popular mainstream dictionaries -- those most commonly used by the general public and scholars -- moves so slowly that one might think the editors are out of step.

Not so, says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster Inc., which offers both a print edition of its dictionary as well as free access to its contents at merriam-webster.com. Editors track new words from the point of first citation. Most simply don't make the cut. "We don't want to have words that come and go," he says.

The fastest word ever adopted by Merriam-Webster was Google (verb tense), which entered the dictionary in 2006, five years after the first citation was noted. "In lexicographical terms that's light speed," Sokolowski says. In contrast, the editors had been monitoring malware since 1990, but it just entered the dictionary this year.

There's good reason to hold back, says Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. "It is not the editors' intent to capture every word that comes out of any given industry," he says. In the high-tech field, where terms such as those found on Wired magazine's Jargon Watch may rise and fall in a matter of weeks or months, time separates the wheat from the chaff. "Leaving out the whimsy and the flash in the pan leaves room for essential vocabulary," says Kleinedler.

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for The Oxford English Dictionary, says the OED is less conservative than Merriam-Webster in how quickly it includes new words, adding 200 to 250 every quarter. Blog, for example, entered the dictionary in 2003, just four years after the first occurrence was noted. (Perhaps the word to be added to the OED the fastest was not a technology term but a medical one. Norovirus entered the dictionary in December 2003, less than one year after the first quotation.)

Where Is It Used?

Ironically, while the earliest citations for many new high-tech words come from the blogosphere and other online postings, the adoption and widespread use of new high-tech words in blogs and other Web-based sources carries less weight than do print publications when it comes to deciding which words make it into the dictionary.

Words are accepted when the editors observe a critical mass of citations in "serious" publications, Sokolowski says. That means (with a few exceptions) the major print publications. Online-only publications with "carefully edited prose," such as Slate and Salon.com, are also influential. But not blogs. "Most blogs are just not carefully edited," he says. "The gold standard has always been the printed page."

Because of the reliance on print citations, the world's biggest search engine also plays a limited role in research at Merriam-Webster. Sokolowski says he uses Google and other online search engines only informally, to begin investigating new words. "Most of the citations we take come from print sources or Nexis [the searchable archive of print and online publications] because that really represents the press," he says.

OED's Sheidlower says citations in blogs and other online sources do influence his decision-making process, and he acknowledges that some terms appear chiefly in online sources. But he, too, wants to see words spill over into print publications before adopting them. "We would be less likely [to include words] that are only used in online sources," he says. "But it could happen."

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