I don’t want to be snitty about this

But this AP article about new words in Merriam-Webster is not all it could be.

The year was 1989, and "snitty" started off strong. The word popped up in the Los Angeles Times in January, then appeared in the March and August editions of People magazine.
It was one of hundreds of words being tracked by editors at Merriam-Webster who are always searching for new terms to enter into the Collegiate Dictionary.
But something went wrong. The editors, who were eager to define snitty as "disagreeably agitated," no longer saw the word in national newspapers and magazines. Snitty fizzled. Although it was commonly used in conversation, Merriam-Webster's editors could only find three examples of its use in print. They had no choice but to reject it.
They began noticing it again 2005, first in Entertainment Weekly and then in several newspapers. With about a dozen examples of snitty being published, the term is now a likely shoo-in for next year's Collegiate.
When it comes to making it into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, spoken word isn't enough.
"We need evidence that it's being used in print," said senior editor Jim Lowe, who is at a loss to explain snitty's six-year publication gap.

Well, it would be difficult to explain a gap that's not there. Lexis-Nexis shows 232 instances of snitty in newspapers before 2005, going back as far as 1978. There are seven instances of its use in the New York Times, 1984–2005. Google Book Search also shows pre-2005 examples, including one from Lucky by Jackie Collins (what, nobody at M-W ever reads beach books?) and a reference in John Ayto's 1992 Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. It's also in the OED, with four citations from 1978–1987.
The thing is, though, that anyone who relies primarily on eyeballs-to-the-page reading (and the article states "The editors spend hours reading everything from science and medical journals to entertainment and fashion magazines. … New-looking words are highlighted, and the passage in which they are discovered is typed onto an index card and entered into a computer database.") is going to have this same problem.
Leaving aside the boggling "typed onto an index card" (!!! — why not enter it directly into the database and then print out index cards if you want them?) this process is a misuse of editorial time.
Instead of having editors read print magazines, why not dump the magazines into a large digital database and use simple sorting and search to find new words? People, even lexicographers, are notoriously inattentive when asked to perform visual tasks. Let the computer, which never sleeps (we're assuming it's not running Vista) do the watching, and let the lexicographers do the analysis.
I'm not saying a database will find ALL the new words — or that if a lexicographer sees a new word 'in the wild' that he or she shouldn't make a quick note — but, as fun as it may be to get paid to read Entertainment Weekly, it's not very efficient. I'd rather get paid to suss out how words are being used, not to find them in the first place. Doing new-word-finding by reading, instead of databasing, is like finding underground water by dowsing when you have access to a ground-penetrating-radar satellite.
I should also point out that, despite the inclusion of snitty in the OED, none of the current-English dictionaries has included it yet, as far as I can tell. Of course, none of them have started adding large-circulation popular magazines to their databases yet, either. So it's not like Merriam-Webster is really falling behind … it's just that they're not as far out in front as they could be. Think of what those 40 lexicographers (which is what the article says M-W has devoted to their reading program) could define with all that extra time!
The article also talks about the Seinfeldian regift, and says that other dictionaries, including the New Oxford American Dictionary, don't yet include it. NOAD actually does include regiftOrin Hargraves (who I think was the first person to define regift in his 2004 book New Words) has already pointed this out, though, so all you NOAD partisans don't need to email Adam Gorlick at the AP to correct him.

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5 thoughts on “I don’t want to be snitty about this

  1. I’ve been wondering about the accuracy of that article since it first appeared on the wires. Maybe MW has 40 readers, not 40 editors (which you have as “lexicographers,” Erin, though the article says “editors”). And I wonder if all of them actually work on-site, as the article suggests, and I wonder if when Gorlick wrote “read through hundreds of newspapers and magazines” he meant that they’re reading them digitally as well as in hard copy.But the most amazing thing is that there are only 76 words on their list this year! That’s way too low.

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  2. It would be totally doable to have a table of words that have already been used in a(ll) dictionary(-y+ies), and then have something pick out the ones that are not in said table, listing the date, and all that other important info that people would need to throw large salsa parties at the dictionary factories across the world. It has always confused me as to why a large digital database was never created that could hold all of our printed materials. Perhaps it was just the nerd in me at an early age, beyond playing an SNES emulator in class, I also figured that having a worlds library was just around the corner. I mean the Internet was an amazing thing… and now it’s even faster, yet here we are with pretty, personalized chat rooms called Myspace. It does make me glad that Google is doing its best to get books in, despite the uproar that it caused. Why learning isn’t at our fingertips, whether it be for school, anarchy fueled purposes, or lexicographer foraging, is far beyond me. Perhaps you should call Google, and tell them to make it happen. As incentive, I’ll throw in a bag of M&Ms every month for the entire year of 2008! That’s like 12 bags of M&Ms!!!!

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  3. This is so interesting because I actually saw this article in the paper and it sounded like a sweet deal to be paid for reading mags all day. I even thought about making it an alternative career choice. So is that not how it works at other dictionary companies?and the line about the index cards – I was scratching my head about that one too.

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  4. It’s quite possible that the article is only a third hand retelling of what a friend of the brother of one of the M-W editors overheard at a barbecue after a few beers. That’s about the accuracy level of anything in the papers related to language, or science… or politics…On the other hand, maybe M-W just got a really good deal on typewriters.

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  5. OMG! I just clicked on the link. It actually has photos of these typed cards. I guess I owe the author an apology.So, the only remaining explanation then is the clearance sale on typewriters.

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