Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

For dictionaries, spoken word is just not enough

`Regift' became a popular term after it was blurted out by Elaine on `Seinfeld' in 1995, but the editors at Merriam-Webster needed written proof before taking action


The year was 1989, and "snitty" started off strong. The word popped up in the Los Angeles Times in January, then appeared in the March and August editions of People magazine.

It was one of hundreds of words being tracked by editors at Merriam-Webster who are always searching for new terms to enter into the Collegiate Dictionary.

But something went wrong. The editors, who were eager to define snitty as "disagreeably agitated," no longer saw the word in national newspapers and magazines. Snitty fizzled. Although it was commonly used in conversation, Merriam-Webster's editors could only find three examples of its use in print. They had no choice but to reject it.

They began noticing it again 2005, first in Entertainment Weekly and then in several newspapers. With about a dozen examples of snitty being published, the term is now a likely shoo-in for next year's Collegiate.

When it comes to making it into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, spoken word isn't enough.

"We need evidence that it's being used in print," said senior editor Jim Lowe, who is at a loss to explain snitty's six-year publication gap.

Snitty's journey from popular use to the pages of the country's largest selling dictionary goes to the heart of what Merriam-Webster's Collegiate strives to be: an official collection of words and definitions that grows and changes with modern conversations.

"It's circular," says Daniel Brandon, one of the 40 or so editors who read through hundreds of newspapers and magazines looking for "neologisms" -- newly coined or created words. "People look to us to settle the argument over whether a word is really a word. But we look to them for how to enter it in the dictionary in the first place," he said.

Brandon and his fellow new-word seekers work alone in cubicles filling the second floor of Merriam-Webster's headquarters in Springfield. Other than an air conditioner's hum, the clicking of computer keys and pages turning, the room is as silent as a library.

The editors spend hours reading everything from science and medical journals to entertainment and fashion magazines. They have no phones on their desks, and if there's a need for conversation, communication might happen in a whisper if not an e-mail or handwritten note.

New-looking words are highlighted and the passage in which they are discovered is put on an index card and entered in a computer database.

Around this time each year, Lowe goes through a list of hundreds of the newly flagged words, and sees how many citations were made for each. If there were at least eight, the word becomes a strong contender to be passed on to John Morse, Merriam-Webster's president and final arbiter on what word goes into the dictionary.

The list now on its way to Morse contains snitty and 76 other words, from "air-kiss" (exactly what you think it is), to "za" (shorthand for "pizza").

Along with an extensive vocabulary, the editors also need something a bit less tangible to hunt their quarry. And there isn't even an English word for it: Sprachgefuhl.

"It's just a feeling for the language," Lowe said, defining the German term. "It's an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate."

It's not as tough as it may sound.

Consider "regift."

The word found its way into conversations in the US in early 1995, after it was blurted by the character Elaine on an episode of TV's Seinfeld.

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