Words, Words, and More Words

websterKathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here, today musing on the English language, the origins of words, and some of their meanings.

Every year, major dictionaries add more words. Some have been around for quite a while before they officially become part of the English language. Others make the cut quickly, thanks in part to their frequent appearance in social media. This year, in May, Merriam-Webster added 1,700 new words.

Many aren’t all that new. Some aren’t exactly words at all. Take “WTF” for example. I hope I don’t have to tell you what the letters stand for. It’s classed as an “abbreviation,” that is “used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion of bemusement.” Hmmm.

“Selfie” made Merriam-Webster list. So did “frenemy” and “twerk.” More on that last one in a minute.

oedA little over a month later, in June, the Oxford English Dictionary, affectionately known as the OED, also added new words. It also created new sub-entries and added new senses to the meanings of words already in the dictionary. I couldn’t find a total number of “new” words, but suffice it to say that “a whole bunch” covers it.

The OED is a resource frequently used by writers because it makes every effort to trace each word to its earliest use in print in English. This helps writers of historical novels avoid anachronisms. Sometimes, when the OED assures us a word was in use much earlier than we thought, we still avoid using it because it just doesn’t “sound right” for the period. Case in point: the updated OED traces the meaning of “twerk” back to 1820. Who knew?

Of local interest here in Maine is the addition of the word “Masshole” as a term of contempt for someone from Massachusetts. The OED dates this word to c.1989. Personally, I’d date it a lot earlier, and apply it specifically to people in cars with Massachusetts license plates driving recklessly on Maine roads. That’s the thing about words—not only are they often in use far earlier than their first appearance in print, but their meanings tend to vary from region to region.

Other goodies from the OED list are:







meh (adjective and interjection)





shakespeareSome of these started out as made-up words. Now they’re real. Hey, this is nothing new. Shakespeare alone is credited with adding over 1,700 words to the English language. They weren’t all totally new. He changed nouns to verbs, added prefixes and suffixes, and otherwise altered meanings of existing words . . . just as someone did to create many of the words on this year’s lists. Some of my favorites among Shakespeare’s contributions to the language, with particular emphasis on those relating to crime and criminals, are bandit, circumstantial, cold-blooded, and premeditated. The Bard of Avon also gets credit for “obscene.”

Don’t you just love a living language?

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Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Ho-Ho-Homicide, 2014) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries as Kathy (Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, 2015). The latter series is a spin-off from the Face Down series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her webpages are http://www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and http://www.KaitlynDunnett.com


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9 Responses to Words, Words, and More Words

  1. Heidi Wilson says:

    It never occurred to me before, but how does Merriam-Webster make space for the new words? It doesn’t get bigger and bigger, and the font doesn’t get smaller. Or do they? It would be just as interesting to know which words have been dropped over the years. Netbook, for example, is not likely to have a long life.

    • Good point, Heidi. I don’t have a clue as to the answer, but I think you’re right. They must eliminate some words every time they add new ones. The OED, of course, runs to multiple volumes, so I suspect the keep everything.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Don’t know the term “webisode” but without looking it up, I’d say it’s the problem I suffer from that keeps me from getting more writing done. Like right now, for example, I am having a webisode instead of writing, aren’t I?

    I told my students this week that they can’t just look up a word on the internet, because then they get only that definition. The glorious beauty of dictionaries is getting led to another word on the page, and then on to another word, and so on. Dictionaries and thesauruses can be even better than webisodes.


    • Hi, Kate,
      I was thinking it referred to an episode of a series like the ones Netflix is producing–not seen on TV, only by streaming the video. Since we haven’t advanced past DVDs at my house, I’m only guessing. Darn–now I’m going to have to go look it up or it will nag at me for the rest of the day!

      • Yup. I was right. An episode made for online viewing. Figures. Now that I’ve finally replaced all my old VHS tapes with DVDs the DVD players is probably about to become extinct. I’m also one of the last holdouts to still be listening to books on tape in my car on audio cassettes. The don’t exist for any book recorded in the last ten or so years but I have a great collection of oldies but goodies.

      • Heidi Wilson says:

        Where do you find machines to play your audio cassettes on? Mine all died after choking on a tape and destroying it, and when I tried to replace them, every one I bought came from China, and choked and killed the tape the first time I used it.

      • I listen to audiobooks while driving, so my cassette player is the one that came with my fourteen year old car. I think I still have a Walkman somewhere, and I know we have one of those combination radio, TV and cassette player boom boxes. Of course the TV part no longer works, since analog went the way of the dodo. We used to run that on batteries during power outages. I’m really dating myself, aren’t I?

  3. Very interesting — words and an evolving language are fascinating. I’m surprised by the word “twerk” dating back so far!

  4. Barb Ross says:

    I do love words, and I do love it that our language is so rich and continues to evolve.

    In Boiled Over, one of my most curmudgeonly Mainers come close to calling someone a Masshole. There’s an indignant review on Amazon that says, “This was not a bad ‘cozy’, but as a resident of Massachusetts, I did not appreciate myself and fellow Mass residents being referred to as ‘Massholes’.

    Seriously, you do not know people call us that? Have you never left the state?

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