“Bashtag,” “Frenemy,” “Lolz,” “Totes,” and Other Consequences of an Open(ish)-source Dictionary

The Collins Online English Dictionary recently asked users to suggest word entries for its new edition and the results have lexicographers up in arms. Leading British publisher Collins (part of HarperCollins) has been a trendsetter in dictionaries since its first edition in 1819. It set a new standard in 1979 when it became the first dictionary to use computer databases for editing, which allowed it to have multiple editors for each entry. That same open-source spirit led to its 2004 debut of the online Living Dictionary, which allowed users to submit words and debate their inclusion in the online edition of the Collins. In its latest push to generate new entries, Collins gave out prizes of smartphones, DVDs, t-shirts, and, um, “mantyhose” to selected users who submitted words this summer. One outraged lexicographer mockingly wrote in The Economist:

Have you heard the “amazeballs” news about Collins Online English Dictionary? It’s become the “frenemy” of tradition-lovers after its recent additions of words crowdsourced from the public, which some might consider the equivalent of “mummy porn” slipping in to Shakespeare. Indeed, don’t be surprised if you spot a “bashtag” about this latest development, or someone demanding a “tweetup” to resolve the issue.

As dubious as this may sound to some, the above paragraph was legitimate English. Indeed, its veracity has passed the test of those sternest of eyes, the lexicographers at CollinsDictionary.com. [1]

According to Alex Brown, the head of digital material at Collins, the project was designed to “open up” the entire process of dictionary creation, but The Economist calls it a valiant but failed attempt:

Browsing the site certainly makes for often amusing reading. But perhaps it’s not quite the intellectual hothouse the creators intended. Of the 4851 words currently “pending investigation” only a handful have comments. One submission to elicit a response was “ridonkulous” by Summer1988. Definition: “an event or action that is way beyond ridiculous”. Example: “That shirt is ridonkulous.” Comment underneath by sarah8180: “This word is great!” Hardly 18th century coffee-house stuff.

A similar piece in The Guardian denounced Collins, claiming that “dictionaries are not democratic” and that crowdsourcing material, though appealing in some ways, would dilute the authority of the dictionary as a reference source [2].

However, as John McWhorter notes in The New Republic, this is only the latest battle in the centuries-old “language wars” between “descriptivists” like Collins that want to make a record of spoken and written language as it is used and “prescriptivists” that prefer to use language only as it ought to be used. He points out that the Associated Press only sanctioned the word “download” this year and that, according to the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, “as late as 1997, 28 percent of the book’s estimable usage panel still thought ‘finalize’ an illegitimate word” [3].

McWhorter compares the fuss over Collins Online Dictionary to the scandal that followed the official acceptance of “ain’t” as a word in the 1961 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Commentators called the dictionary “an incarnation of the middlebrow takeover of America’s intellectual culture” and even a leftist political document. (Not surprisingly, they wrote their critiques in highbrow publications like The New Yorker that have been known to establish their own elitist vocabularies.)

In the recent case of the Collins Online Dictionary, the idea seems to be a moderate approach between these two extremes. Collins explains its methodology:

Every word that enters the Collins Dictionary is reviewed by our editors before inclusion. Whether it’s a word that has been floating around the verges of common parlance for years, or one that you’ve just coined and submitted yourself, the word will always go through this review process.

Our editors look for objective evidence to decide which words deserve to be included. This evidence is based on our 4.5-billion-word database of language called the Collins Corpus. The words in the Corpus are taken from a huge range of sources of spoken and written English, including newspapers, radio and now, social media, from all over the world.

Generally, the more frequently a word is used, the more likely it is to be included in the dictionary. Other factors are considered though, such as how widespread its use is, whether it can be found in multiple sources, and how long it is likely to stay around for.

Every word has to prove itself worthy of a place in our dictionary. [4]

Though the words Collins did let in might seem substandard, it only accepted 86 words out of over 4,400 submissions. Many words commonly used but not found with sufficient frequency in their database of print and web content were axed. Submissions like “delio,” “nom,” “parentals,” “pwn,” and “thingy” didn’t make the cut, but the apparently more accepted words below did. Of the words that were accepted to the Collins Online Dictionary, a handful will make it into the next print edition.

An abridged list of the 86 words recently accepted by Collins is reproduced below.

amazeballs, exclamation (slang)
An expression of enthusiastic approval

bake in, tr, adverb (informal)
To include (a feature) as an inteɡral part of a computer’s operating system

bashtag, n.
A Twitter hashtag that is used for critical and abusive comments

BBM, abbreviation
Abbreviation for ® BlackBerry Messenger: an instant messaging application for BlackBerry devices

blootered, adj., (Scottish, slang)
Intoxicated; drunk

bridezilla, n. (slang)
A woman whose behaviour in planning the details of her wedding is regarded as intolerable

captcha, n.
Acronym for C(ompletely) A(utomated) P(ublic Turing Test to) T(ell) C(omputers and) H(umans) A(part): a test in which the user of a website is asked to decipher a distorted image, used to protect the website against automated attacks

claustrophilia, n.
Abnormal pleasure derived from being in a confined space

confirmee, n.
A person who has confirmed that he or she will attend a specified event

crowdfunding, n.
The funding of a project by a large number of supporters who each contribute a small amount

cyberbully, n. (plural)-lies
Someone who uses electronic communication to hurt, persecute or intimidate people

cyberstalking, n.
The practice of using electronic communications to harass someone persistently

data cap, n.
A limit imposed on the amount of data that can be transferred to an electronic device

denialist, n.
A person who refuses to accept something that is regarded as an established fact ⇒ “a Holocaust denialist”

egghead, n. (informal)
2. A person whose profile on a social networking site contains the set graphic provided by the site rather than a personal picture

exoticize, vb., tr
To regard or present as exotic

exposome, n.
A collection of environmental factors, such as stress and diet, to which an individual is exposed and which can have an effect on health

fanboy, n.
An ardent or obsessive admirer, esp a young man

floordrobe, n. (informal)
A pile of clothes left on the floor of a room

frape, vb. (slang) (also n. frapeage)
To alter information in a person’s profile on a social networking website without his or her permission (from Facebook + rape)

frenemy, n. (informal)
A supposed friend who behaves in a treacherous manner

full plate, n.
A large and onerous amount of work

gazang, vb. (informal)
(of the seller of a house) to inconvenience (a potential buyer) by withdrawing from an agreement to sell shortly before the purchase is completed

geekism, n.
A preoccupation with subjects that are generally considered as unfashionable or boring

Generation Z, n.
Members of the generation of people born since the mid-1990s who are seen as confident users of new technology

hangry, adj. (humorous)
Irritable as a result of feeling hungry

helicopter parent, n.
A parent who is excessively involved in the life of his or her child
hyperconnectivity: the use of multiple systems and devices to remain constantly connected to social networks and streams of information

IM, n., vb. (computing)
Abbreviation for instant message, instant messaging

impactful, adj.
Having a powerful effect or making a strong impression  ⇒ “a thoughtful and impactful display of contemporary art”

K-pop, n.
The characteristic pop music of South Korea

liveblog, vb., n.
To report (an event) in one’s blog as it happens; a blog in which events are reported as they happen

livestream, vb., n.
To broadcast (an event) on the internet as it happens; a live broadcast of an event on the internet

lollage, n. (slang)
The practice of using the text messaging abbreviation LOL; laughter

lolz, pl. n., (slang)
A variant spellinɡ of lulz

new money, n.
Money and wealth that has not been inherited

on the same page, adj. expression
Working in harmony

oojamaflip, n. (slang)
A thing whose name is temporarily forgotten

photobomb, vb. (informal)
To intrude into the background of a photograph without the subject’s knowledge

shabby chic, n.
A style of interior design that uses worn or distressed furnishings to achieve a romantic effect

sick, adj. (slang)
Good; excellent

squadoosh, n. (US, slang)

superfood, n.
A food that is considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health

thanx, exclamation (informal)
Thank you

throw someone under the bus, vb. (mainly US)
To expose someone to an unpleasant fate, esp in order to save oneself

tiger mother, n.
A very strict mother who demands that her children reach a high level of achievement

totes, adv. (British, slang)
Totally; completely; entirely ⇒ “That is totes amazing.”

tweetup, n. (slang)
A meeting at which poeple who communicate with each other via the social networking site Twitter meet face to face

Twitterer, n.
A person who posts messages on the Twitter website

verbal diarrhoea, n. (informal)
A tendency to speak at excessive length

vom, vb. (British, slang)
To vomit

webliography, n.
A list of items published on the internet, esp one indicating sources used in the preparation of a book or academic paper

zhoosh, vb.
Often foll by up (slang) to make more exciting, lively, or attractive

zing, n. (US, informal)
A witty remark


[1] “Open(ish)-source lexicography,” The Economist
[2] “Dictionaries are not democratic,” The Guardian
[3] “The War of the Words: How to Update a Dictionary,” John McWhorter, The New Republic
[4] Collins Dictionary

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