When I was in college, I studied how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. I can’t remember why I studied this, but I did. I read several books on the matter and researched it online. If you’re interested, here are a couple of the books I remember… The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman (Amazon links).. The OED website also has a very brief history of their origin. Oh yeah, I remember, I looked into their history because I was totes enjoying looking through their word entries, and having access to the OED was something I really geeked out about as a college student. I totally miss that. But subscriptions are expensive, and I wouldn’t use it enough to justify getting one. Ah well.

Anyway, while researching the OED, I learned a lot about language and dictionaries. Language, if you don’t know, dear reader, is a thing that fascinates me. It is ever growing and always changing. And the people who use the language are also pretty fascinating to me, because there will always be people who cause, accept, and embrace language change, those who vehemently oppose it, and those who never seem notice it but adopt it through osmosis — and all those in between. While reading about the OED, I also read about the Webster dictionary — which was published in direct contradiction to the OED. Webster’s Dictionary became the hallmark of American English — its spelling and grammar (Webster also wrote grammars and schoolbooks during his lifetime).

Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, title page shown here. Webster's work is the subject of an installment of Joe Janes' Documents that Changed the World podcast series.

Webster’s Dictionary (google search)

So why am I tell y’all this, dear reader? Because I kinda know how dictionaries work. I’m no expert by any means, but I learned a little with all that research.  See, as explained in the article linked for Webster’s dictionary… he didn’t invent the spelling for color (as opposed to colour). Nope, he found it in one of Shakespeare’s portfolios, and he stuck it in his dictionary. Because that’s how dictionaries do things.  When the makers of dictionaries hear about a word, they might have no idea what it means — take fleek or on fleek for example — and thus begins the process. The writers and publishers find the origin of the word as best they can, then they find as many examples of said word as possible and extrapolate the meaning from the context.  When the first dictionary was being written, this wasn’t easy because there weren’t that many “examples” of the word to chose from. But as the words were used more often, and in different publications, better definitions could be created.


My “Webster” Dictionary


Because that, dear reader, is how definitions are formed, through published and referable media. If a word or phrase is in the language, and used widely enough, then it will find its way into the dictionary. And it doesn’t matter how many people “hate” that word, because it’s not the dictionary’s job to act as the gatekeeper to the English language. Not anymore, anyway. Thank god! Oh boy, did some early dictionary writers think they held the keys to morality and “proper English etiquette”. Much like some of the people who submit definitions on Urban Dictionary… >_<  No, it’s a dictionary’s purpose solely to act as a reference and a repository to whatever language it is defining. Which is why most dictionaries nowadays are online, because it’s much easier to enter these words digitally. Think about this, dear reader. The first English dictionary (the OED) took fifty years — fifty years! — to complete. And every update afterwards was also many years in the making. Now they can update yearly if they want. Technology is pretty amazing.  Language isn’t changing any faster — we as a species have always changed the way we talk.  We’ve just developed the means to keep up with our language better.


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