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Please don't get 'snitty' if you don't like to 'regift'

It's not as easy as you may think to get into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

September 21, 2007|Adam Gorlick | Associated Press

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

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

"Snitty's" journey from popular use to 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 reads 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."

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 they are discovered is typed onto an index card and entered into a computer database.

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

The list now on its way to 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. And there isn't even an English word for it: sprachgefuhl.

"It's just a feeling for the language," Lowe said, defining the German term. "It's an intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate."

It's not as tough as it may sound.

Consider "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.

But that wasn't good enough for Merriam-Webster. 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," said Joanne Despres, a senior editor. Once "regift" started gaining momentum in publications after 2001, Despres did some more checking and found that "regift"started appearing in newspapers almost immediately after it made its debut on "Seinfeld."

"It may have been coined in a specific place, but it really took off," Despres said.

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 spotted, tracked and analyzed.

Just because a word makes it into the dictionary -- even Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, which sells about 500,000 copies each year -- doesn't mean it will stick around.

"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," said Allan Metcalf, the 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."

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