Adding Words To The Dictionary Has Always Been A Slow Process. Then COVID-19 Hit

There’s been no shortage of criticism in recent week of everyone from business leaders to public officials to individual citizens, for not moving fast enough to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But one industry whose stock-in-trade is to work slowly is moving with unprecedented speed: The dictionary.

Not every new word that makes is way into our day-to-day conversations makes it into the dictionary — even online, where space is essentially unlimited. In fact, it’s actually pretty hard for a new word to get the nod.

“We have a kind of reflex to wait,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Springfield-based Merriam Webster. “[We want] to make sure that the word has staying power; that it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Typically, he said, when a new word emerges, researchers watch it — fastidiously citing its usage over time in publications. Phonetics experts study its pronunciation. Etymologists examine its history. Definitions are drafted, edited and refined. It’s a careful, deliberative, intentionally slow process.

“Normally, it’s more like a conveyor belt that takes, on average, a number of years for a word to go from being noticed to being added to the dictionary,” said Sokolowski.

Even in our fast-moving, hyper-connected world, where technology creates new toys — and new terms — at a breakneck pace, that process has held true.

“The word blog, for example, B-L-O-G. I believe it took four years from its coinage to its entry into the dictionary,” said Sokolowski.

The word AIDS, which first appeared in 1982, was included in their dictionary two years later in 1984. Sokolowski said that’s the fastest a word had ever been added.

Until now.

Read more: WGBH

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