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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Falling out

For a word, getting into the dictionary is the academic equivalent of achieving tenure. Once a term gets in, editors are loath to remove it. While editors at Merriam-Webster and American Heritage do occasionally retire words, those that make it into the OED stay forever, and become part of the historic record of the English language, says Sheidlower. That's one reason why he's particularly selective when it comes to high-tech terms. "Other dictionaries can put something in, make a marketing splash and take it out two years later. We can't do that."

But competitors are also very conservative when it comes to removing words. Merriam-Webster drops words only during major revisions, which occur once a decade, and those that do get dropped tend to be real antiques. Some of the more recent terms to get the axe included microreader (first cited in 1949) and record changer (first cited in 1931). A relatively modern term by that measure, PL/1, the programming language, first cited in 1973, was recently removed from both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries.

But taking out words carries real risks, says Kleinedler. In 1998, during a review of obsolete computer science terminology, the word chad faced the chopping block. Then Kleinedler recalled voting with a punch card machine in the previous election. "We decided to hold onto it [for the dictionary's 4th edition, published in 2000]. And lo and behold, the election of 2000 comes along and suddenly chad is everywhere."

American Heritage has removed a handful of technology terms, including data diddling. "Anything you'd need to know about that term can be adequately defined by diddle itself," says Kleinedler. (Although the definition for diddle, as attributed to American Heritage at Bartelby.com, is less clear about fraudulent data manipulation than what one finds in the Encarta Dictionary definition.

While dictionaries consistently add new high-tech terminology as it goes mainstream, the editors don't seem too worried about keeping up with the fast-changing computer technology landscape or its high-tech readers. "They're not following us, we're following them. It is they who inform us what needs to go in," says Kleinedler.

For the typical technology enthusiast, the dictionary serves a more important function than providing definitions of high-tech terms that they already know. "[They] are much more likely to use a dictionary to find out how to spell mischievous or figure out what the word olivine or slatternly means, rather than looking up some term that they themselves are on the front lines of establishing in the language."

What's In, What's Out

American

Heritage

Dictionary

Oxford

English

Dictionary

Merriam-Webster

English Dictionary
Bluetooth Contender In Contender
Blog In In In
Blogosphere In In In
CD-ROM In In In
Chad In In In
Cookie In In In
Crowdsourcing Pending Pending Contender
Data diddling Out Out Contender

Digital rights

management (DRM)
Pending Pending Contender
IM In Pending Contender
Malware In In In
Mashup In In Contender
Netroots Pending No In
PL/1 Out In Out
Podcast Pending Pending In
Solid state disk (SSD) Pending Pending Contender
Pending: Will be in an upcoming edition

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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