Merriam-Webster catches up with the virus

Words are added to the language every day. Sometimes they stick to the language. More often they don’t.

That’s why dictionary makers are slow to add words to their corral. They like to make sure they’ve stuck and are in use.

With the current pandemic, the folks at Merrian-Webster decided that they couldn’t play the waiting game this time around. Words like “coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” and “social distancing” would be with us for a long time to come.

A recent article in Slate magazine by Stefan Fatsis explains what happened in the offices of Merrian-Webster recently:

Until the coronavirus. Last week, Merriam announced a special update of its free online dictionary with about a dozen words related to the pandemic. At the top of the list was COVID-19. The term—a mash-up of coronavirusdisease 2019—was created by the World Health Organization and unveiled on Feb. 11 at a news conference in Geneva. On March 16, Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary. For a word to go from nonexistent to defined and entered in 34 days isn’t just an unprecedented reflection of a hectic, dire moment in history. It also shows how dictionaries, including America’s oldest and most lexicographically conservative one, are battling for speed, authority, and readers online.

Merriam-Webster dates to Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, published in 1806. Even in the digital age, with none of the space constraints of books, Merriam has clung to a tradition of linguistic fermentation, resisting the temptation to certify trendy words, on grounds they might disappear quickly from the language. Twerk first appeared in 2001 but wasn’t added until 2015. The Twitter sense of tweet took five years. Blog needed six. You will not find smexy or funtastic in Merriam. Source: The coronavirus prompted Merriam-Webster to make its fastest update ever.

Read the entire article.

My guess is that “social distancing” will compete for Word of the Year when it comes time to select that next year.

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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