Dictionary daftness, Dan Brown style

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Perhaps you saw the outrageous headline from The Daily Telegraph last week: "Secret vault of words rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered"! Michael Quinion called it "quite the daftest dictionary-related story I've ever read," and I tend to agree. In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at just how daft the story is, with its suggestion of a Dan Brown-style Dictionary Cabal locking up failed words. (Actually, Dan Brown could probably write a better story — that's how laughable it is.)

An excerpt:

I was immediately suspicious of the "non-words" listed in the Telegraph article when I saw the first one: "Accordionated – being able to drive and refold a road map at the same time." Talk about a golden oldie. That dates back to the 1980s, from Rich Hall's popular Sniglets book series. (A sniglet is "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary but probably should.") It has circulated in online sniglet collections ever since.

Looking deeper into the list, I felt a creeping sense of déjà vu. It turns out that a healthy majority of the entries come from a single source. In 2005, Merriam-Webster asked users of its online dictionary, "What's your favorite word that's not in the dictionary?" It compiled a top ten list (and later, with much fanfare, announced that the top vote-getter, ginormous, would enter the next edition of the Collegiate Dictionary). Beyond the top ten, Merriam-Webster provided a list of "Previous Favorite Words (Not in the Dictionary)." Of the 39 words listed by the Telegraph, a whopping 27 of them — from asphinxiation ("being sick to death of unanswerable puzzles or riddles") to wurfing ("the act of surfing the Internet while at work") — come from Merriam-Webster's 2005 selection of "previous favorite words."

You can read the whole thing here.


  1. BrianneLise said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 2:06 am

    hilarious, mr. zimmer. it seems merriam-webster has no standards. haven't they incorporated 'irregardless'? by the way, do you have any thoughts on the adoption of 'good' as a folksy alternative adverb instead of 'well,' as obama said recently that he 'politiks pretty good'?

    [(bgz) It's important to note that the user suggestions catalogued on Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary are independent of the dictionary itself. If they do end up admitting a word off the suggestion list, such as ginormous, they'll make sure it fulfills all the usual lexicographical criteria. As for irregardless, M-W does have an entry, but they mark it "nonstandard" and append a long usage note. For more thoughts on ginormous and irregardless, check out my recent appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show.

    Folksy adverbial good is a whole nother can of worms.]

  2. Don Campbell said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 2:16 am

    I read it last week so one of the Australian papers must have borrowed it from the Telegraph. The only word on the list I'd like to see in dictionaries is earworm – my colocutors and I use this in our regular vocabularies to describe a song stuck in one's head.

    Earworm has a Wikipedia page and can be found in Wiktionary, so I figure it's only a matter of time before the pre-Web2.0 dictionaries pick it up.

    Almost all the rest of the list I have never heard of and will never use.

    [(bgz) As I mention in the Word Routes column, earworm already has an entry in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, so I assume an OED entry can't be too far behind.]

  3. Andrew Greene said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    I'm still waiting for M-W to acknowledge "rotini."

  4. Patrisha said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Like several other commentors, I am surprised that "earworm" isn't there. I actually learned it from my 13-14 year-old students who would bring me cds of the music they liked and tell me that the song was {or was not} an earworm.

  5. John Cowan said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    What's wrong with this story is that the reporter took his source too seriously, with his overwrought talk of a "hush-hush vault" and "dating back hundreds of years" (well, maybe one and a fraction hundreds; the OED reading program began in 1860). In turn, the sub-editor took the reporter too seriously, making it a "secret vault". Otherwise the story is basically factual, though no one seems to have caught the boo-boo about Tolkien being editor (as if!) rather than employee.

    I myself, for what it's worth, have a word in that "vault", and one that has appeared in print: peth-winds. See this Languagehat posting for details. The OED's courteous response amounted to "Too obscure even for us."

    [(bgz) "Basically factual"? No, I'd say it's basically fallacious. There's no "secret vault," no list of rejected words — and the words presented are, as I say, mostly gathered from an online list generated five years ago by a different dictionary publisher. More power to the art student for getting lots of publicity for his project, but this is a crock from top to bottom.

    Thanks, though, for pointing out the error about Tolkien — I had meant to mention that but got caught up in all the other nonsense.]

  6. Dierk said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    Hasn't anybody read The [Deeper] Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd?

  7. Fiona Hanington said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    @Dierk: I have! I love that book – IMHO, it's far superior to Sniglets…. it has me laughing aloud every time I re-read it.

  8. Chris Buckey said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    I think my favorite thing about "earworm" is that it's actually yet another German loanword. Trust them to have a word for something like that.

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    I'm not sure how many people are familiar with the party game where everyone has attached to them a piece of paper whose contents (often the name of a famous person) they cannot read and has to determine what it says by asking yes/no questions. The first time I came across the word "earworm" was when a person wearing a piece of paper containing that one word asked me a yes/no question about it. I guessed that it was some kind of cereal pest (lucky guess) and proceeded to give some very unhelpful answers.

  10. SeanH said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Something I thought was particularly odd was the art student's self-contradiction:

    "It's a very hush, hush vault and I really struggled to find out information about it because it is so secretive.
    "But when I spoke to them they were happy to confirm its existence and although I didn't actually get to see the room they did send me some examples."

    It's very hush hush (what's that comma doing?) and secretive, until he asked them about it, and then they were happy to tell him everything?

  11. Will said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    I've never heard the term earworm (though I do like the word). And I have in actual non-ironic speech heard the term freegan (though I dislike that word).

    In fact, I dislike most of the words on that list because they are for the most part formulaic and uninspired — the formula being to take a word sequence or phrase and compress it down to a single word. Boring.

    And the few that don't follow that formula are mostly cutesy/clever in a way that makes them not candidates for actual words.

    "Earworm" is a good word — it doesn't follow a formula, and it's not "trying too hard" to be clever, but it is creative and evocative.

    All that being said, I do admit I like "Fumb" for the large toe, even though it's a result of the same formulaic process.

  12. Peter said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    @Chris Buckey: Isn't earworm a calque?

  13. David Green said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

    "Earworm" is reminiscent of Joyce's use of "earwig" in Finnegan's Wake.

  14. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    Fiona & Dierk: Before Liff there was this: http://dadge.wordpress.com/2010/02/14/ware-wye-watford-1/

  15. un malpaso said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

    I envision a warehouse like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark… where bizarre words are locked away forever in crates

  16. blahedo said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 1:50 am

    @Peter: yes, and in fact in my experience "earworm" alternates pretty freely with the direct loanform "Ohrwurm". It's a great and useful term. :)

  17. Waffles said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    So, I was pretty disappointed with this list of unused words. I mean, I know the dictionary people don't have a secret underground lair where they imprison words that are too dangerous for the public, but I was somehow expecting something more from a list of words that aren't in the dictionary then a bunch of sniglets.

    Surely there must be some words that used to be in the Oxford English Dictionary but now aren't because they're too archaic?

    Or if not, at least there must be some that weren't invented in the last thirty years.

    This whole foofarah made me sympathize with the people who get angry at words or grammar, though, because I can't stand the whole word genre (Or "wornre" if you will) of cheesy portmanteaus invented to name really specific things. At best, they're a kind of overly cutesy humour, and at worst, you get newspaper trend pieces encouraging people to actually use them.

    Like, as far as I'm concerned you can do almost anything you want in terms of slang or grammar, but the word "sexting" just infuriates me.

  18. Anita Gupta said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 7:40 am

    I work at the Kingston University Press Office and we wrote the press release about Luke Ngakane's Dictionary of Non-Words so I know it is definitely not a prank!

    We were surprised that the story went so big though. The letterpress was one of Luke's final year design projects which featured in the University's third year Design Faculty Degree Show
    (showcasing the work of final year design students at Kingston).

    We wrote a few releases at the time of the show in June – primarily for our website – on student projects that we thought were particularly interesting. Luke's was one of these. A local news agency picked up on the story six weeks later and we believe most of the national coverage resulted from that. (This is probably why there won't have been a byline on some of the national articles since they got the story from the wires).

    We've since put Luke's story back on the homepage of our website as it has generated so much interest.

    Anita Gupta
    Kingston University Press Office

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    John Cowan: I myself, for what it's worth, have a word in that "vault", and one that has appeared in print: peth-winds … The OED's courteous response amounted to "Too obscure even for us."

    Interesting – and rather inconsistent of them. They include "ochidore" (which got its fifteen minutes of fame via the recent Scripps Spelling Bee) whose sole sighting, like "peth-winds", is in a Charles Kingsley novel. Perhaps the difference is that the context doesn't give any meaning for "peth-winds".

  20. Cecilia said,

    August 14, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    "I take a look at just how daft the story is . . . ."

    That's just what They want you to believe.

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