Peter Sokolowski—The dictionary as data (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

For most of its centuries-long history, the dictionary had been the source of a largely one-way flow of information. Today, online dictionaries can track what words people are looking up, and, as Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski showed us, this rich data can offer us fascinating insights into what people may be thinking about at any given moment.

“Editors know the dictionary better than anyone else,” said Sokolowski. Merriam-Webster’s traditional constituents were mostly librarians and teachers, and it was only through Twitter that Sokolowski (whose own Twitter feed was named among TIME’s best of 2013) discovered the large editorial community of dictionary devotees. Many of us find ourselves reading the dictionary for fun. “People think they’re the only ones telling me they read the dictionary,” he said, “and always in a conspiratory tone. Looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate act.”

In Noah Webster’s time, that intimate act was restricted to an elite few: Webster charged $20 for his dictionary in 1828, making it very much a luxury item. After Webster died, the dictionary’s printers—the Merriams—reduced the price to $6 in 1847 and then to $3 in 1847. After the war, they introduced paperback versions, and the pocket dictionary cost only 25 cents. The democratization of the dictionary continued: Merriam-Webster put its Collegiate Dictionary online in 1996, and now we can all look up words for free.

Adults use the dictionary a bit differently compared with children, said Sokolowski. “We look up to learn more, not to profess ignorance.” We look up words to learn about their etymologies, to get a better grasp on their usage, and to understand their shades of meaning in different contexts. Major events often trigger a spike in lookups: when Princess Diana died in 1997, top lookups included paparazzi, cortege, and princess. After the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, lookups included rubble, triage, terrorism, jingoism, and surreal. When California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage was struck down, Merriam-Webster saw a spike in lookups of marriage—and what Sokolowski calls an echo spike for bigot.

Among the most looked-up words are affect and effect. “English is hard,” said Sokolowski. “English presents us with difficulties. Lookups can reveal struggles between orthographic variants,” such as camaraderie and comradery. Some words—including pragmatic, conundrum, and paradigm—are looked up all the time. Spikes in two-letter words, usually in the evenings around Christmas and Thanksgiving, are a hint that people are playing Scrabble. Some lookups are cyclical: love spikes in February every year, “not for spelling, and not for pronunciation.”

Sokolowski added, “We’re good at reading data; we’re not very good at reading minds.”

How does a word make it into the dictionary? Criteria for adding a word are

  • sustained usage,
  • frequent usage, and
  • meaningful usage.

(Antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t meaningful, so it doesn’t get an entry.) It used to take fifty or sixty years for a word to be added to the dictionary. “Blog got in after five,” said Sokolowski. Of course, Merriam-Webster regularly receives letters, some from users who disagree with the dictionary’s stance. “Standard English is a privileged language,” said Sokolowski. “Language changes fast enough for us to notice, and most of us don’t like the change.” Regardless of whether users like a definition, though, the function of the Merriam-Webster dictionary is to offer a snapshot of American English of the day. It is synchronic, in contrast with the diachronic Oxford English Dictionary, which records a word’s evolution over time. “We need both,” said Sokolowski.

The only Merriam-Webster dictionary behind a paywall is the Unabridged, with almost 500,000 words—all of them fair game for participants of the national spelling bee. Access to the Unabridged also allows you to run advanced searches, for words that were coined in a certain year or that have a certain language in the etymology, for example, and to run reverse lookups of words that appear in the definition.

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