Seeking more street cred (n. popularity with or acceptance by the common people), Webster's New World College Dictionary has added almost 80 new words and definitions, an update that reflects the nation's current obsessions, from Al Qaeda and WMD on one hand to Botox and LASIK on the other.
The 1,700-page dictionary is updated every year, as editors try to keep pace with a constantly evolving language and include what they deem the breakout (adj. achieving, resulting in, or characterized by sudden or unexpected success or popularity) words of the new millennium.
"We really think we owe it to the reader to change it every year," said Michael Agnes, editor-in-chief of Webster's New World. "Language reflects society and human endeavor, so [the dictionary] reflects changes in those very broad areas."
Some of the words reflect the charged political and global landscape of the past several years. Militant organizations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban, are now in the dictionary. On the domestic front, civil union (n. a legally recognized marriage-like union of same-sex partners) and faith-based (adj. affiliated with or sponsored by a church or other religious organization) made the cut.
Agnes said that as American society has become more consumerist, new words related to food and fashion have gained currency. This year's update adds shiraz and syrah (n. a red grape grown esp. in the Rhone Valley in France, now also in the U.S. and Australia). Also added is cargo pants (n. loosefitting, casual pants having a number of capacious pockets).
"Language encodes cultural properties," said David W. Lightfoot, assistant director of the National Science Foundation and former linguistics professor and dean at Georgetown University. He said a key function of a dictionary is explaining words and phrases bubbling up through the culture.
"You don't need dictionaries to tell you the meanings of words you know," Lightfoot said. "You're looking up words that are not part of your experience and which encode this more or less exotic information."
Lots of reading
To keep tabs on the language, Webster's has a staff of two citators and eight editors who pore over newspapers, magazines, novels and nonfiction books, as well as listen to radio and watch television, always on the lookout for new words. Every new word, new spelling or new meaning is indexed on a computer. The staff averages 1,500 new entries per month.
For words to be included in the dictionary, three criteria are considered: How long has the word been around? (A minimum of three years is typical.) How widely is it used? (It must show up in mainstream sources, not just obscure journals.) And how frequently does it appear?
"Frequency is a useful criterion because the dictionary is supposed to help readers understand language they encounter," Agnes said. But he doesn't want to include words that seem faddish and might disappear. For that reason, the following words did not make the cut this year:
Ringtone (specialized rings for cell phones);
Netizen (a user of the Internet);
Asiago (a popular type of cheese);
Amber Alert (a bulletin put out for missing children);
TiVo, as a verb (to record a TV show on a digital recorder).
But should those words hang around, they will be strong candidates for inclusion next year. No words were dropped from the dictionary this year, though that does occasionally happen. Some time ago, Webster's dropped copacetic (adj. good, excellent, fine, etc.) - a big mistake.
"We took it out and, sure enough, it had a resurgence, and it went back in," Agnes said, "and we're not taking it out again."
Slow to add chad
Some linguists say dictionaries should strive for greater currency. Just with this year's update, now trickling into bookstores, did Webster's New World get around to including chad (n. any of the bits of paper that are separated from a punch card in the process of making the holes in it), which gained infamy in the 2000 presidential election.
"Adding chad right now is five years out of date," said Bert Vaux, a professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. "I believe a lot of dictionaries try to avoid using ephemeral words - words that they strongly suspect will come and go quickly. But as a linguist, I want to know what words have been and are being used."
Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, said dictionaries are his first point of reference when considering whether to include words in his puzzles. But they're not the final arbiter.
"I have a whole list of words that have never appeared in any dictionary, ever," he said. "It's not that they're obscure, but dictionaries just overlook them."
On Shortz's list of overlooked words or phrases: neatnik, bounciness, tiramisu, rim shot, steelyard, fuzzy navel and Uey - as in making a U-turn. While he often gets complaints from readers when answers aren't in the dictionary, Shortz says he understands that dictionaries have to draw the line somewhere.
"The dictionaries are under terrific space constraints," he said. "Yes, they could include all these things, but the cost of the dictionary would be prohibitive."
Agnes said Webster's New World is including more words than it used to, especially proper nouns and exclamations. This year's update includes the word sheesh (interj. used variously to express disbelief, surprise, annoyance, etc.).
"For a long time, dictionaries avoided things like this," Agnes said, referring to sheesh. "They weren't nouns. They were exclamations, and the thought was, do we really need this? We decided yes. We are championing American language."
A touch of slang
Certain slang terms were also added this year, including new definitions for slacker (n. a young person, typically in his or her twenties, variously regarded as indolent, unambitious, alienated, apathetic, etc.) and wedgie (n. a prank in which the victim's undershorts are jerked upward so as to become wedged between the buttocks).
Wedgie had been left out of previous updates because it used to be confined to the parlance of high school. But Agnes said it started showing up in comic strips and editorial cartoons, indicating a new, wider usage. (Yes, he gets paid for this.)
Agnes has also added words closer to his heart as an aging baby boomer obsessed with health. Words such as Cipro (trademark for a synthetic antibiotic ... ), which some stockpiled in the event of an anthrax attacks, and irritable bowel syndrome (a chronic gastrointestinal ailment lacking a specific known cause ... ).
Agnes, though, at the age of 58 has more pressing concerns on his mind. "My recurring nightmare," he said, "is that I walk into a Borders naked and pull the dictionary off the shelf and have it say, 'Michael Agnes, editor-in-chef.' "
This year's update of Webster's New World College Dictionary includes nearly 20 new definitions of existing words and these 58 new words:
Al Qaeda (also, al-Qaida)
Gulf War syndrome
irritable bowel syndrome
omega-3 (fatty acid)
Type 2 diabetes