January 16th, 2006

little blue dog


Earlier today I was engaged in one of my odd hobbies: shopping for a dictionary (currently I own about seven, for some reason). I noticed that a few of the new editions feature a blurb advertising "10,000 new words!" or something similar.

For example, the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary boasts more than 225,000 definitions, and includes 10,000 new words and meanings. The 10th edition, published in 1993, clocked in at 215,000 definitions, 10,000 more than the 9th edition, published in 1986.

These numbers change from publisher to publisher, of course, but picking up two subsequent paperback editions of the same dictionary, I was surprised to see that the newer one had fewer pages than the older one, but the fonts looked pretty much the same.

I know that not all of the previous words (or definitions) are kept in there. What I want to know is which were dropped, but more importantly, why.

Wouldn't that be a cool job? Killing off words?

I picture the Merriam-Webster offices, on an upper floor, the "NEW WORDS" division. The suite of rooms have glass walls and huge windows looking out onto the cityscape, they're full of young interns and professionals, all snazzily dressed and moving purposefully and energetically among ultramodern furnishings, surrounded by bright and unexpectedly colored decor, their eyes alive and intense, they're all on wireless headsets and powerMacs, their collective thumb on the pulse of pop culture.

"PHAT!" shouts one.

"TWEENER!" pipes up another.

"EXFOLIANT!" "DEF!" "IDENTITY THEFT!" "BOTOX!" It's like verbal ping-pong.

Meanwhile, at the end of the hall, a staircase leads down to the basement, to an unmarked door intermittently lit by a bare, flickering bulb. A sedate sign plaintively announces "OLD WORDS." Inside are two ancient men, dressed in stiff collars, bow ties, and suspenders, drudging slowly around a cramped office smelling vaguely of typewriter ribbon, one looking methodically and intently through stacks and stacks of paper covered with statistical and usage data, droning figures to the other, who pecks it all into a 10-key machine, pulling the crank with resignation and squinting at the results.

"Looks like 'pantdress' is out."

"Ohhhh, I remember that one. Shame."



"Oh well. What's the next one?"

"Oh, let's see here."

And so forth.

OK so maybe not so cool.
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