How do tech terms become legit?

Are the words we use every day -- like podcast, mashup, and blogosphere -- good enough for mainstream dictionaries?

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OED's Sheidlower says citations in blogs and other online sources do influence his decision-making process, and he acknowledges that some terms appear chiefly in online sources. But he, too, wants to see words spill over into print publications before adopting them. "We would be less likely [to include words] that are only used in online sources," he says. "But it could happen."

Getting in

While widespread usage is a requirement for including new technology terms, editorial judgment also plays a role in determining what goes in and what stays out. Some decisions seem counterintuitive. For example, the term beta, as in beta software, never made the cut at Merriam-Webster. "[Beta] was never entered because there wasn't enough evidence that it was used generically," explains Anne Bello, assistant editor.

What's in and what's not also varies by publisher. For example, Bluetooth has been in the OED for five years, but is just now slated for the next edition of American Heritage and Merriam-Webster.

Then there's HD-DVD and Blu-ray, the competing DVD formats. The OED has passed on both. "You want to make sure you're not putting in something that's going to go away in two months when the technology goes one way or another," says Sheidlower. While Blu-ray won the next-generation DVD format battle, it still won't make it into the OED. "Neither of those products is that widespread," he says. But both technologies are apparently popular enough for Merriam-Webster's editors to include them in the next edition of their dictionary.

Seemingly outdated terms also may be added in some cases. For example, gopher was added to the OED several years ago, but is just now on the short list for inclusion in an upcoming version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Sheidlower says he wouldn't add the term if it were under consideration today, but says the fact that a technical term is obsolete isn't sufficient reason not to include a word -- or to remove it. "For us to put something in is a statement of faith that it is important," Sheidlower says.

The more technical the term, the less likely it is to make it into the dictionary. While Wi-Fi is in, the protocols it uses, such as 802.11b and 802.11g, are not. AJAX, another technical term, has yet to prove its permanence. "It's a common technology right now, but it is by no means the only technology for dynamically updating Web sites," says Sheidlower. He also sees it as more of a technical term. "The man on the street probably hasn't heard of AJAX, even if they've used Google Maps [which uses the technology]," he adds.

Another sticky area is known as the "Xerox problem": trademarked names that become synonymous with a function, such as photocopying. In the high-tech realm, Google has come into common use as a verb. That's a problem for Kleinedler. "We cannot legally add Google [to the dictionary] as a verb... trademark law is one area where lexicographers' hands are tied," he says, adding that publishers are legally obligated to define trademarks as trademarks (rather than, say, a verb). As a result, American Heritage uses roundabout language in its definition of Google, as cited on Dictionary.com: "A trademark used for an Internet search engine. This trademark often occurs in print as a verb, sometimes in lowercase."

But not all publishers are so cautious. Merriam-Webster defines google as "to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web," giving the etymology as "Google, trademark for a search engine."

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