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‘Our relationship with words is evolving’

mumbai Updated: Jan 21, 2010 00:50 IST
Bhavya Dore
Bhavya Dore
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

After 9/11, the most looked up words on the online Merriam-Webster dictionary were ‘surreal’ and ‘succumb’. After Michael Jackson died, ‘RIP’ ‘emaciated’ ‘icon’ and ‘stricken’ had the most hits.

The relationship we have with words is fascinating, language is always evolving and has not lost its beauty, said the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s Editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, at a talk on Wednesday. He is in India to speak on language-related themes like dictionary writing and the evolution of English.

“A dictionary is a biography of the word as it has existed in the language, and our job is to report the language, not invent it,” said Sokolowski, summing up his enterprise.

Having worked on a series of Merriam-Webster dictionaries, Sokolowski also participates in book, radio and television tours and hosts the dictionary’s ‘Word of the Day’ podcast.

The process of compiling new entries for the dictionary involves observing the frequency with which new words occur, and in what contexts. “Putting a word in the dictionary is tricky and involves exercising judgment. The question we ask is — how often is the reader going to encounter this word?” he said.

The biggest source for new words nowadays are foreign words for food with words from Korean, Italian and Indian cuisines often making a strong case for themselves through their increasing usage, Sokolowski said.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary is the best selling hardcover book in American history but it now has a parallel online presence — the website — which gets 1.3 billion page views per day, said Sokolowski.

Its first version was written up by Noah Webster in 1806 (the Merriam stands for its publishers, the Merriam Brothers). Webster was also responsible for attempting to make English a more phonetic language. Thus, for moving from humour to humor, hypnotise to hypnotize and centre to center, Americans have Webster to thank.

“But it’s a good thing he didn’t succeed entirely because the story of words is embedded in their spellings and making all words phonetic would have wiped out their history,” said Sokolowski.