. . . nowadays, at any rate, the Merriam-Webster powers-that-be keep an eye on the frequency and usage of new words that crop up over the years. Then:
“As soon as we see the word used without explanation or translation or gloss, we consider it a naturalized citizen of the English language,” said Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. “If somebody is using it to convey a specific idea and that idea is successfully conveyed in that word, it’s ready to go in the dictionary.”
The history of English dictionary-making goes back at least to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, which he labored away at single-handedly, leading him to write in the Preface:
Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pionier of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius . . . . Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompence has been yet granted to very few. . . .
When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.
Over a hundred years later, James A.H. Murray agreed with Oxford University Press to edit a “new dictionary” which eventually became the Oxford English Dictionary. He had numerous assistants researching word usages and etymologies in a “scriptorium” in his back yard, but it was a much larger job than Johnson’s, and he could not finish it in his lifetime, though he came close. His life story is quite fascinating, and has been told in Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, by K.M. Elisabeth Murray. Recently, Simon Winchester’s somewhat sensationalized account of one of the more unusual contributors to the Dictionary brought renewed attention to Murray’s achievement with The Professor and the Madman.
My favorite among this year’s newly approved words: mondegreen: usually described as a misheard lyric. Its origin (because we dictionary people love etymologies), according to the largest collection of the things, is Sylvia Wright:
As a child she had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” and had believed that one stanza went like this:
Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae sla[in] the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Poor Lady Mondegreen, thought Sylvia Wright. A tragic heroine dying with her liege; how poetic. When it turned out, some years later, that what they had actually done was slay the Earl of Murray and lay him on the green, Wright was so distraught by the sudden disappearance of her heroine that she memorialized her with a neologism.
You probably know or have committed some of the “mondegreens” listed yourself . . . but maybe you didn’t know there was a term for such things! Now you know.