Readfeed logo

How do words get into the dictionary?


Every year, more words are added to the dictionary. This gives them validity. Good news for you if you’re into Scrabble. But how does it happen? What qualifies a word? We’ll explore the process of coining and how words make it into the dictionary.

Who adds words to the dictionary?

People who add words to the dictionary are called lexicographers. A lexicographer is a writer, editor or compiler of a dictionary. Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster gives the following insight:

‘Lexicography moves so slowly that scientists classify it as a solid. When you finish defining, you must copyedit. When you finish copyediting, you must proofread. When you finish proofreading, you must proofread again, because there were changes and we need to double-check. When the dictionary finally hits the market, there is no grand party or celebration. (Too loud, too social.) We’re already working on the next update to that dictionary because the language has moved on. There will never be a break. A dictionary is out of date the minute that it’s done.’

Dictionary publications are full of people with a genuine passion for the English language. Its ever-changing and evolving nature. 

Where do dictionary contributions come from?

Contributions to the dictionary largely come from the public. The first step to a contribution is the word being created. 

When someone creates a new word, this is called a neologism:




a newly coined word or expression.

Someone can only contribute the new word to a dictionary if it has widespread use in a group of people. It’s not enough for you alone to use it. Or even you and your family or friends. 

How do words get into the dictionary?

Firstly, there is no ‘the’ dictionary. There are more revered and popular dictionaries, but they don’t all have the same set of words. They also have many different publishers. 

This being said, we can draw some parallels between the most popular dictionaries. They have similar processes for qualifying new words for definition and publication. 

The Oxford English Dictionary 

The Oxford English Dictionary – OED – gives monthly updates on new words they have added to their dictionary. You may think this suggests they’re reacting to brand new words and that an event-triggered term can make it. This isn’t necessarily the case. There is a lag between new words being coined and their being ubiquitous enough for the OED. 

At the time of writing, the OED’s latest update has ‘adulting’ in the December 2020 update. Yet Google Trends reveals this term has been picking up traction for a few years now:

This shows that a phrase needs to have longevity to qualify. 

The OED reveals the following about their process:

  • A word is added to their watch list database. Contributions come from an enormous variety of sources. The OED’s reading programmes is one source. Crowdsourcing appeals to the general public is another. Increasingly, they source from automated monitoring.
  • The OED’s editors review every single word that makes it to the database. If a term is sustained and widespread, it’s assigned to an editor. 
  • An editor, assigned with a word, reviews the existing information and then does independent research. Here are some examples of sources they might look at: newspaper archives, online forums, academic studies, magazines, law tracts, recipe books, social media.
  • They draft the dictionary entry. 
  • Pronunciation editors review the entry to add a pronunciation audio file. 
  • Bibliographers check that sources are cited correctly.
  • The entry is signed off.
  • The entry is passed to the finalisation team for the final approval. 
  • The entry is published in the OED’s quarterly update online. 

This is a rigorous, 9-step process. There is no frivolity involved with adding a new word to the dictionary. So you could add an ‘ing’ suffix to the word ‘adult’ in a game of Scrabble and double down on your decision.

Dictionary by Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster actively encourages people to use interesting language in their daily lives. Their social media presence showcases this, with their #WordoftheDay updates and thematic content. 

But, like other respected dictionaries, they’re sticklers for the rules. They recommend the following for coining a new word:

‘If your toddler nephew invented a great word that the English language simply can’t do without, don’t write to us to recommend that it be added to the dictionary. Use it. First, you drop the word into your conversation and writing, then others pick it up; the more its use spreads, the more likely it will be noticed by dictionary editors.’

To summarise how a word gets into Merriam-Webster:

  • Their lexicographers actively look for new vocabulary entering the mainstream.
  • They collect citations for new words.
  • Research is done as to the widespread nature of the new word. It’s qualified for its longevity. 
  • They check if it’s already been added to the dictionary. If it has, they add the new entry as a different meaning of that word. 
  • The entry goes through the editorial process.

How does a purely online dictionary qualify a new word? 

  • The word is checked for widespread use.
  • The word is checked for staying power. 

One of their lexicographers explains: 

“Your new word won’t make it into the dictionary—even if it is very clever or fills a specific need in the language. Unless it gets adopted and used by other people. The dictionary only includes words that have a specific meaning many people can agree on.”

Traditional dictionaries and online dictionaries seem to go by the same principle – you can’t just make up a word casually. That would be lexical anarchy. 

From these examples, we can deduce the following process:

  • Lexicographers review their sources, whether that’s through active research or contributions.
  • The word is assigned to an editor and they do further research before penning their entry. 
  • The word needs to have both widespread use and longevity to make it into the dictionary.
  • The entry moves through the editorial process, being checked for accuracy before it’s signed off.