- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007


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 used commonly in conversation, Merriam-Webster’s editors could find just three examples of its use in print. They had no choice but to reject it.

They began noticing it again in 2005, first in Entertainment Weekly and then in several newspapers. With about a dozen examples of snitty being published, the term is 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,” says senior editor Jim Lowe, who is at a loss to explain snitty’s six-year publication gap.

Snitty’s journey from popular use to probable inclusion in 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.”

Mr. 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 one is discovered is typed onto an index card and entered into a computer database.

Around this time each year, Mr. 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 words go into the dictionary.

The list on its way to Mr. 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: Sprachgefuhl. There isn’t an English word for it.

“It’s just a feeling for the language,” Mr. Lowe says, defining the German term. “It’s an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate.”

It’s not as tough as it may sound.

Consider the word regift.

The word wormed its way into American conversations in early 1995 after it was blurted by the character Elaine on an episode of TV’s “Seinfeld.” Because the word itself describes what it means, and with so many unwanted-present recyclers finally getting a name for their actions, the word caught on easily.

That wasn’t good enough for Merriam-Webster, however. Editors didn’t flag it until more than six years later, when it appeared in an article in Glamour magazine.

“We’re not trying to pick up on a word that just became popular and everyone starts speaking it,” says Joanne Despres, a senior editor. Once regift started gaining momentum in publications after 2001, Miss Despres did some more checking and found that it had started appearing in newspapers almost immediately after premiering on “Seinfeld.”

“It may have been coined in a specific place, but it really took off,” Miss Despres says.

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 found, tracked and analyzed.

None of the dictionaries has published definitions of snitty or regift, but they all compete by boasting frequent updates to make themselves appear current.

They also show off similar-sounding claims on their covers: “America’s Best Selling Dictionary” (Merriam-Webster), “America’s Favorite Dictionary” (American Heritage), “The World’s Most Trusted Dictionaries” (Oxford), “We Define Your World” (Webster’s New World).

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 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,” says Allan Metcalf, 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.”

Merriam-Webster’s employees say they do their job without prejudice. Just because they’re entering a new word doesn’t mean they necessarily like it. That philosophy comes from Merriam-Webster’s patriarch, Noah Webster, who published his first dictionary 200 years ago. Webster believed language is constantly in flux and that his dictionary could take a snapshot of popular words in the American vocabulary.

“We don’t get to decide on the basis of our own likes and dislikes what goes in the dictionary,” Mr. Morse says, “but we do use our judgment to decide whether a word has become well established.”

To prove it, he admits to not being a big fan of regift.

“I would not have thought that it would’ve come this far,” Mr. Morse says.

Not that he’s snitty about it, of course.

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