Monday, June 30, 2003

We are getting wordy, indeed.

Merriam-Webster managed to cram 10,000 new words into its latest collegiate dictionary, available today in bookstores and the first revised edition in a decade.

Words are cheap, too. Priced at $30, the volume contains 225,000 definitions. That boils down to a little over one one-thousandth of a cent per word, give or take an iota. Or maybe a smidgen, mite, speck, jot or tittle, for that matter.

And what words.

There’s “barista,” as in one who serves coffee to a Starbucks-struck public. There’s “comb-over” for the hapless gent who believes inventive styling can conceal his baldness.

“Frankenfood” denotes genetically modified cuisine. Then there are “funplex,” “headbanger” “longnecks” and “dead presidents.”

The latter four words actually complement one another.

Funplex is an assemblage of movie houses, game rooms and restaurants; headbanger denotes an aficionado of thumping heavy metal music, while longnecks, well, that’s just beer in a long-necked bottle.

“Dead presidents” means the cash that revelers use to pay for it all, even if they have a “McJob,” or low-paying work.

“Dictionaries are not just a place to find correct spellings and meanings. The story of words is the story of American life,” Merriam-Webster spokesman Arthur Bicknell said yesterday, adding that among books the collegiate dictionary was second only to the Bible in sales.

“We get complaints. People get offended by certain words, and we explain that we are a chronicle of the offender — we didn’t invent them. But we have a responsibility to get them out there,” he said.

But the dictionary has its limits, unlike the brand-new 75th-anniversary Oxford English Dictionary, which weighs in at 20 volumes and 22,000 pages.

“To keep our dictionary manageable, some words have to be kicked out; it’s as simple as that,” Mr. Bicknell said.

It is the endless editing job.

New words are gleaned constantly from movies, the Internet, slang, food, medicine, music, marketing, sports, politics and anything else that catches the watchful eye of staff editors, who chart common word usage with the zeal of scientists.

When a term like “heart-healthy” lands in the vernacular, for example, it is cited and sourced with clinical precision. Then the popularity contest begins. Words with the most citations win spots in the dictionary, their fate ultimately controlled by all-important “definers” who determine what goes, what stays, what needs redefinition.

Words are cycled out when their relevance fades — which used to mean 10 to 20 years.

“But it’s speeding up now. The Internet, the whole information explosion has sent new words, particularly technical terms, quickly into use,” Mr. Bicknell said. “The word ‘dot-commer’ only took five years to make it.”

Merriam-Webster does keep a kind of old-word depot, however. Old “citation files” have been maintained since the 1880s, accumulating 70 million examples of words in all their glory, and have been converted to a searchable database.

Jesse Sheidlower, North American editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, says such word flux is just part of the business.

“There are always new words coming in. That’s the nature of the English language,” he said yesterday.

Meanwhile, the publisher is making the multivolume dictionary more attractive to the general public.

“We realize our dictionary is not exactly an impulse buy,” observed Oxford spokesman Donald Myers. “Usually, it’s $3,000 to get the whole set. We’re offering it on special for $895.”

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