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The Oxford English Dictionary

New Words

People frequently write to the dictionary saying things like, "I have invented the word ‘pridehole’, to describe the kind of difficulty my friend Will has got himself into and then is too stubborn to get out of. Can you include it in the O.E.D.?" These people misunderstand the nature of the O.E.D. – it is not a list of newly coined words or expressions, but a historical record of the language as it is used.

The OED Online entry for the word 'icon'
OED Online main entry text frame
Reproduced with the permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
Graeme Diamond, the dictionary’s principal editor, New Words, explains that it would be impractical to include every piece of slang and private jargon, and that the dictionary only includes new words when they have become general currency - when, as he says, "people are using them unselfconsciously, and expecting them to be understood.’

Each word has new definitions added in chronological order as they become current, and no word is ever removed. Anyone reading a novel written in 1850 can look in the dictionary to find what uses of a word were current at the time. Interestingly, the use of "icon" to mean "A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect," only dates back to 1952, and this meaning was only added to the dictionary in 2001.

As a very rough rule of thumb, appearance in five separate published sources over at least five years would indicate the required sticking power. "There is no room of angry philologists pleading for their favourite words," Graeme Diamond explains. "The process has simple criteria – it’s rather mechanistic, actually." The process is based on published examples of a word’s use, and finding these is a huge task, hence the reading programmes which have been part of the O.E.D. since its inception, and which continues to thrive via such television programmes as Balderdash & Piffle, which taught viewers about hunting for earlier and earlier examples of use.

A word is born

These savvy viewers might be surprised to learn that one of the most recent words to enter the O.E.D. is "bouncebackability", which means the ability, especially of a sports team, to rebound from poor results. The Crystal Palace football manager Iain Dowie used the word in 2004 to describe his team’s recent performances, and it quickly gained cult following in the football world, especially through the support of the Sky programme Soccer AM, and was used in the national press. The Scotsman even employed it to describe Conservative leader, Michael Howard.

When the Macmillan English Dictionary website made bouncebackability their word of the day early in 2006, they said it was coined by Dowie. All this seems to indicate a word too new to meet the O.E.D.’s criteria, but Graeme Diamond explains that the dictionary’s quotation-hunters have discovered examples dating back to 1972, when it was used to describe US baseball. "It’s actually a pretty venerable word," Diamond points out.

One new problem the O.E.D. is beginning to face is that some words have their first published use online. The dictionary does not like to quote sources that could be erased or changed, so, says Diamond, they are forced to print out the relevant page and store it in the O.E.D. archive.