I don’t feel snitty today because I just got a za from someone who blew me an air-kiss. It turned out the za was just a regift, but it was still a sprachgefuhl-like experience!
An index card filed at the Merriam-Webster headquarters containing the word “snotty” and the information on when and where it was used in a publication.
If you didn’t understand a word I said, well, blame the new words that keep coming up in the latest dictionaries.
The makers of Merriam-Webster Dictionary said there are at least 77 new words that editors will include in the dictionary’s edition for next year.
Among them are “snitty” (which means “disagreeably agitated”), “za” (short for “pizza”), “air-kiss” (another term for “flying kiss”), “regift” (a gift given to one person who gives it to another), “sprachgefuhl” (an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate).
The word “snitty” first popped up in the “Los Angeles Times” in January 1989, 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.
But then 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 the six-year publication gap of “snitty.”
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.”
Brandon and his fellow new-word seekers work alone in cubicles filling the second floor of Merriam-Webster’s headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts. 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 typed onto an index card and entered into 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 process for entering new words varies a bit among the Collegiate’s competitors — the American Heritage College Dictionary, the Oxford American Dictionary and Webster’s New World College Dictionary — but the overall concept is the same. New words need to be spotted, tracked and analyzed.
Just because a word makes it into the dictionary — even Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which sells about 500,000 copies each year — not everyone is convinced that it has enough staying power to stick around for four or five decades, the average amount of time between printings of the company’s massive unabridged dictionary.
“Since every dictionary claims to be authoritative and up-to-date, they proudly add a sprinkling of new words and say they’re the best,” said Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. “But it’s impossible to know which of the new words are going to last. You can make predictions, but the only way you can be sure is to wait at least 40 years.”
Forty years? You wait for 40 years just to get a regift of za?