Merriam-Webster’s new crop of words mirrors the evolving definition of work

FILE PHOTO: A woman working from her computer at home is seen as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Oxford, Britain, March 31,…
FILE PHOTO: A woman working from her computer at home is seen as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Oxford, Britain, March 31,…
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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Terms like”digital nomad,” “co-working,” and “gig worker” have been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this year. As a whole, they reflect the growing popularity of words that describe the new parameters of professional life borne out of the covid-19 pandemic and the rise of remote working.

Also recently added are words like “blank check company,” for shell businesses also referred to as SPACs, “ergomania” or workaholism; “drudge” for monotonous labor; and “lucubration” a fancy noun that means intense study.

Lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, an editor at the 190-year old publishing company, explains that the nearly 1,000 new entries in this year’s edition have been used in print media enough times that they felt it was the right moment to establish a common definition. “We’re dutiful observers of the language,” he explains. “We’re reporting on the actual usage and we do have to wait a little bit. We want to make sure that these terms have staying power.”

Several words and acronyms used in online communication also made it to Merriam-Webster’s 2021 edition—”amirite,” “bit rot,” “copypasta,” (referring to data that have been copied and spread widely online, like a meme; not to be confused with “creepypasta” which is a scary story that’s gone viral). “Digital blackface,” “deplatform,” “FTW” [for the win], and “TBH” [to be honest] are also among them.

As strange as these linguistic constructions may sound, Sokolowski says that the job of the lexicographer is akin to that of a census-takers when considering a word. “We’re not so much gatekeepers of language,” he explains. “I don’t listen [and] think to myself, ‘Oh, that’s not a word.'” Lexicographers, he explains, are driven by curiosity instead of judgment.

For example, Sokolowski says his ears perked up when he first heard someone say the word “audioly,” to mean something perceived by the ear or “aurally.” “It’s a homophone of ‘orally’; I think this person was trying to make it clear that she wasn’t referring to the way you take aspirin,” he says. “Immediately I wondered if anyone else has ever used this term and if it might be a new word that’s coming to use.”

How a word gets into the dictionary

Every instance of a prospective dictionary word is dutifully logged. Before software streamlined their workflow, lexicographers took an hour each day to peruse various publications and journals in search of new terms—a process called “reading and marking.”  They jotted down notations on 3 x 5 inch index cards which were carefully organized in Merriam Webster’s citation files.

Inside Merriam-Webster's citation collection
Merriam-Webster’s citation file.
Image: Merriam-Webster

“It’s the largest body of collected evidence on paper in any language in the world,” says Sokolowski, describing the 6 million entries stored in red cabinets in the company’s headquarters in Massachusetts. “It records 20th century English in a beautiful way. However, 21st century English moves faster, so we have to search differently.” These days, linguists rely on online databases called corpora, he explains.

Apart from new terms, lexicographers are also attuned to novel uses of old words. This year, Merriam-Webster appended the definition of the word “because” and recognized its informal usage, as exemplified in a 2020 article in Bon Appetit magazine. It reads: “Drastic temperature changes mess with the molecules in food, you know, because science.

But as eager as lexicographers are to investigate all the ways language bends and morphs, they must sometimes call out questionable usage too, Sokolowski says. He cites a recent mix-up with the words “tortuous” and “torturous” in the New York Times.

“It strikes me that a path, even if it’s a figurative one, is more likely to be winding than to be pain-inducing,” he points out. ” We all have to be careful with our language.”