Dictionaries in the United States

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Phoebe Zimmermann. This week -- a look inside the world of dictionaries.

If you call someone "fat," spelled F-A-T, it means overweight. But if you call someone "phat," spelled P-H-A-T, it means highly good looking. Some dictionaries now include this word as slang.

The editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary explained how it reached their Eleventh Edition published last year.

The editors read everything they can to search for new words and meanings. They keep electronic records. They also record words on individual citation cards. Over the years, their company has collected more than 15,000,000 citations. Editors continually consider and reconsider them for placement in their dictionaries.

The editors found enough uses of “phat” over time to judge the word to be popular and long lasting. So they added it to the more than 225,000 explanations of words and phrases in the Collegiate.

One of the early uses of "phat" that they found in print appeared in a magazine in 1994. A writer used it in relation to hip-hop music to mean excellent.

But usage can change by the time a word appears in a dictionary. This is especially true of slang. Some teen-agers say phat is an old word already.

Many of the 10,000 new words in the Eleventh Edition of the Collegiate Dictionary involve computers. Among them is the term drag-and-drop. This means to move a computer file across a screen.

Technology terms like this are an example of how dictionaries show the influence of the times. Another example is the word “chairperson.” It first appeared in the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary in the nineteen-seventies. It recognized that women as well as men serve as leaders.

“Carjacking” entered dictionaries in the 1990's. To carjack means to take someone’s car by force.

The Fourth Edition of the Webster’s New World College Dictionary also includes "mosh." This is a way to dance to heavy metal music. Dancers crash into each other in a mosh pit in front of the band.

Just because a word enters the dictionary does not mean it will stay. An example is "Macarena."

Many people did the Macarena dance. The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary listed Macarena in 1997. But a year later, this word disappeared ... much like the dance itself.

There is a word that the McDonald's Corporation would like to see disappear from the Eleventh Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. The word is "McJob." It is defined as a job with low pay and little chance for improvement. It is meant to describe the sort of job that a worker who prepares fast food might have.

But the chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald’s, Jim Cantalupo, denounced this definition. He said it insults the 12,000,000 people who work for McDonald’s. Also, the company itself uses the term “McJob” in its employment program for people with mental and physical disabilities.

But editors of dictionaries say they do not invent words, they only record the ones people use.

Dictionaries usually list their number of entries instead of their number of words. No one can say how many words are in the English language. There are always new ones, and new uses for old ones. Some words disappear. Others reappear with a different meaning. Then there are all the new groupings of words into phrases with meanings of their own.

College dictionaries have about two-hundred-thousand or more definitions. This compares with 300,0000 or 400,000 in many unabridged dictionaries.

Today many people use the Internet to look up words. Over the centuries, many people have looked to dictionaries to settle arguments about the correct way to use a word. But dictionaries these days do not judge how a word should be used. They simply describe how people use them. and Random House, for example, have free online services. Two others are dictionary.com and yourdictionary.com. Some online dictionaries let users also hear how to say words.

Some dictionaries are limited to subject areas. For example, Artlex.com provides free definitions for more than three-thousand terms related to art. The address is www.artlex.com.

There are many other kinds of dictionaries online, in print or both. There are biographical dictionaries of people and geographical dictionaries of places.

OK, time for a question. Can you think of a word that you would find in both a medical dictionary and a music dictionary, but with different meanings? Keep listening -- we'll tell you what we thought of.

Now we step back 400 years in the history of dictionary making.

In 1604, a British school director named Robert Cawdrey produced a book that defined about 3,000 English words. These came from other languages.

More than a century later, the writer Samuel Johnson published what he called a “Dictionary of the English Language." It appeared in 1855. Then, in 1791, another Englishman, John Walker, also produced a dictionary.

An American, Noah Webster, wanted to create a dictionary as good as those others. Webster wanted to publish an American dictionary. And he did, in 1806, with a dictionary for schoolchildren. Experts say this work launched American dictionaries as we know them today.

Noah Webster was born in 1858 in West Hartford, Connecticut. He became a teacher and studied law. He did not like the books he was supposed to use to teach. So he created many American schoolbooks. Later he became a political journalist. Historians say that after a few years, he returned to producing schoolbooks because he got tired of political disputes.

His first dictionary, in 1806, was called “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.” The next year, he published a shorter version, a dictionary "Compiled for the Use of Common Schools.” A new version appeared in 1817.

After that Webster produced what he called “An American Dictionary of the English Language.” It was published in 1828. It contained 70,000 definitions. It was really two books. He corrected and enlarged it into what became known as “Webster’s Unabridged.”

Webster proved himself untraditional as a maker of English language dictionaries. He included terms popular only in America. He spelled some words in untraditional ways. The same was true for the ways he listed to say words and to use them.

Some critics denounced his work. They did not understand that Noah Webster had established the beginnings of many American dictionaries of the future.

Noah Webster died in 1843. Two printers in Worcester, Massachusetts, bought the rights to continue his dictionary and publish their own. The two were brothers, Charles and George Merriam.

Today the dictionary publishers at the Merriam-Webster company note that many of their competitors use the name "Webster." But their company is able to claim a historical link.

Over the centuries, many people have looked to dictionaries to settle arguments about the correct way to use a word. But dictionaries these days do not judge how a word should be used. They simply describe how people use them. They will, however, often warn if a word is considered offensive.

It would be interesting to know what the man whose name appears on so many modern dictionaries would think of them. They follow the spirit of the times. But so did Noah Webster. Who knows, maybe he would have included phat, P-H-A-T, in his dictionaries, too.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Phoebe Zimmermann. Earlier, we asked if you could think of a word with unrelated meanings in both a medical dictionary and a music dictionary. We thought of one; it describes both a part of the body and a musical instrument: organ. Our producer, Caty Weaver, gets the credit.

Our recording engineer today was Zeinab Abdel-Rahman. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. We leave you with more of the Animaniacs and their production of "All the Words in the English Language."