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I have always thought that startlement is a word in the lexicon. But one day when I was writing in a google doc, I saw it underlined like a typo. I googled it to see if it was indeed a word, or a construct of my imagination, and I found very contradicting answers. It wasn't listed as a word in the following dictionaries:

Dictionary.com

CED

These two dictionaries are much used, yet they do not have this word.

But then I found the two dictionaries below, both with startlement in their databases.

ODO

Collins

Even Scrabble Dictionary has it listed as a word, yet when you google startlement no definition pops up. It's even underlined with a red line on this site, a site about the English language!

Why do some dictionaries have it as a word, and some don't? Well the word is quite rare, Collins dictionary says so. But a graph at the bottom of their page says a bit more. It shows massive drops and increases in the usage of the "word". So for something that has been used a bit, even in recent times, why isn't it listed as a word in many dictionaries? I am starting to believe it isn't an actual word, and just slang, which is the case with brung, something I learned a while ago. So, is startlement a very rare word, or very rare slang? And why has there been so much up and down in the usage of the "word"?

  • Hello, A. Kvåle. It's very refreshing to come across a question where reasonable research (and perhaps more) has been done. But be careful; 'startlement' is listed as a 'related form' in Dictionary.com. – Edwin Ashworth May 7 '18 at 16:50
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    It's the spellchecker that is installed in your browser that is underlining the word in red, the site has nothing to do with it. – Mari-Lou A May 7 '18 at 16:51
  • It sounds like a word. – Mitch May 7 '18 at 19:24
  • @Mitch That doesn't even merit a 'comment'. – Edwin Ashworth May 7 '18 at 19:31
  • @EdwinAshworth ...which is to say that it doesn't look like a word, I'm not sure exactly what it means, but if you say it with confidence maybe no one will notice. But it sounds weird. – Mitch May 7 '18 at 19:38
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Dictionaries don’t decide which words are real, people do, the speakers of a language do. Dictionaries only record usage. Diffferent dictionaries use different criteria to decide whether to list a word. Dictionaries will usually indicate if a word is considered slang.

A lot of people refer to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language. It has an entry for startlement, meaning

The state or condition of being startled; sudden surprise or alarm. Also: something that gives rise to this; a startling thing.

Its earliest example usage is for 1867. Its most recent example usage is from 2001:

The startlement could have killed me.

Christine Ann Glazebrook The madolescents.

The OED says

This word belongs in Frequency Band 3. Band 3 contains words which occur between 0.01 and 0.1 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These words are not commonly found in general text types like novels and newspapers, but at the same they are not overly opaque or obscure. Nouns include ebullition and merengue, and examples of adjectives are amortizable, prelapsarian, contumacious, agglutinative, quantized, argentiferous...

This Google Ngram suggests that the usage of the word greatly increased between 1980 and 2000, but this data is only as good as the tool that collects it and Google Books is far from perfect:

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