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Regulatory bodies and authoritative dictionaries for English
Creating a new word
What are the criteria to adopt new words into English?

I've always been told, at least in English class, that English is so complicated for non-native speakers to learn and has a variety of flaws.

These teachers also point out that English's greatest strength is picking up new words. I know we assimilate words from other languages, 'promote' words from slang to standard and sometimes just come up with new words.

Opinions of educators aside, how is it that words get added to the language? Does someone call up the folks that write the Oxford English dictionary or what?

Edit in response to Callithumpian's comment: that's good to know about the Oxford folks, but what about any other standardization groups? If not, how does it usually happen that new words trickle in to different official publications? I've never heard of any International Society of English or anything like that. On the other hand, I haven't looked terribly far.


Short answer: no.

Long answer: well, yes, but it’s not ‘official’, and it involves getting a awfully big number of people to say the word you want to be included. This way relies on the notion that language is a social product. If your definition of language is the thing in grammars and dictionaries, then Kit’s answer is the way to go.

The linguists that make up OED use the criterion of only including words that are widely spoken for a reason: since English is a language, and languages are useless without people to speak them—that is, a society—words are part of a language when people are using them (or when they have historical relevance).

One can argue that words (and, why not?, expressions) such as “lolspeak” are widely spoken—think of the number of people accessing 4chan—and, indeed, these words are part of the register of a community of speakers. For a couple of reasons dictionaries don’t include every word that comes into existence:

  • They may not last long;
  • Paper is expensive;
  • They often represent the standard language (more on that bellow).

There are attempts to help spread and define what’s new, notably the Urban Dictionary. They’re wild enough to keep track of the great number of new words created every year, but not reliable to everything nor as careful as a traditional dictionary.

So, the process that choose which word will live and which will die is fairly this: a new word is created by someone in a community, and it may or may not be used by his fellows. That word may survive for a long time and spread through more communities. Usually, in both states those words are called “slang”. It may become so common and replace older words, or fill the need for a word to express a given concept.

Sometimes (notably in science and technology) a new word may be crafted by someone to name a new thing or concept (electron, quark, computer). In that case, this word won’t be slang.

The whole thing is much more complex, because words may acquire different meanings for several reasons. Think of “mouse”, both the animal and the thing you probably have in your hand now.

Other than that, I can’t see any other way for a word to become part of a language, or why to worry. This is a natural process. In any case, a new word already is part of a language if people use it. As for the language teaching, the first thing a student has to learn when she’s studying a foreign language is the standard. After that, learning new words is quite easy. Notice that the standard language is institutionalized but does not represent the absolute truth. Even though “rendezbooze” isn’t part of the standard, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t part of the language.

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  • I would say that names of new inventions/concepts can also be slang (e.g. they can name a concept that is internal to a particular company/research group)-- I'm not sure why you draw such a clear-cut distinction between the "slang" and "non slang" case. Think about the term "bucky ball" before it became popularised. – Neil Coffey May 13 '11 at 4:42
  • I agree with you. The thing is, how words arise is a rather complex process, and subject-matter for a long and meticulous research. Still, “slang” usually has a bad connotation, thus I’m not sure one could say that scientific jargon passes through a “slang phase”. – rberaldo May 13 '11 at 13:27
  • This is a very thoughtful summary of a really complex topic. And now I have another fun weekend word (rendezbooze) to show off to my friends. Thanks for taking the time to write it. – Kit Z. Fox May 15 '11 at 1:21

To get a word into the English language, it must be used. It's that simple—unlike French, there is no standardizing body, no agency which dictates what are real English words.

Dictionaries, including the OED, only reflect usage. Remember, no one goes to a dictionary to find a word which they can use.

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You may have heard of Dan Savage's campaign "Spreading Santorum" (this site has the potential to offend the faint of heart). He instituted it to popularize the new definition of "santorum" in order to meet the standards required by OED to have it published in the dictionary. Turns out that it is harder than it seems. For the word to be accepted by OED, it must be in common usage for a certain amount of time with a certain frequency. It's described in the FAQ.

It looks like the link that Callithumpian offers is just the beginning of this process, because it offers a place to submit "evidence" of word usage, which will probably be used to establish etymology and commonness (commonality?) of usage.

As for other sources of English authority, I wish I knew. Hopefully someone else will contribute. BTW, does this happen to be about marginals?

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