The Culture First Look

'Conlang,' 'shade,' 'Seussian' among new words added to Merriam-Webster dictionary

Merriam-Webster added about 1,000 new words to its online lexicon Tuesday.

The 'surreal' entry in a Merriam-Webster's dictionary in New York. 'Surreal' is Merriam-Webster's word of 2016 based on spikes in lookups.
Bebeto Matthews/AP/File
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What do throwing “shade,” speaking a “conlang,” and “ghosting” all have in common?

You might not want to try to use them all in one sentence, but each now has an official definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, moving from the modern lexicon to join millions of other recognized words in the English language. On Tuesday, the dictionary company added a 1,000 new words and definitions to its site in the first update since publishers altered the website and print dictionary in 2014.

Merriam-Webster has announced a sample of the new words, which come from sources including slang, medicine, politics, foreign languages, the art world, and pop culture. The rest, mainly derived from those origins as well, are hidden among the others on the site.

The additions represent how language shifts and changes with generations and to mirror new discoveries, the blending of cultures, and the rise of new slang.

"Some of these we've been watching for many years and some of these are very new words," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, told the Associated Press.

The dictionary often highlights language that reflects the current cultural mood. At the end of 2016, Merriam-Webster declared that “surreal” is word of the year, noting that searches for the word had spiked following several shocking events including terrorist attacks in Orlando, Paris, and Nice, the unexpected campaign victory of President Trump, and the deaths of pop culture icons such as David Bowie and Prince.

Some of the entries are about language themselves. “Conlang,” meaning a made-up language, refers to fictional dialects like “Star Trek’s” Klingon or Elvish spoken in “Lord of the Rings.” “Seussian,” which refers to something of or related to the works of Dr. Seuss, has also been added.

The new group of words also boast slang terms such as “ghosting,” which means to cut off contact with someone, often in a romantic sense, without explanation, and throwing “shade,” an action known as publicly insulting someone subtly, which can occur on social media platforms.

Some additions reflected the current political debate, including “microaggression” and “safe space.” Both have come up in debates around college campus culture, where some argue that any prejudiced behavior, ideas, or speech that could be considered a microaggression should be confronted and curtailed, or altogether banned in areas deemed “safe spaces.” Others argue that such climates soften young people and allow them to avoid viewpoints that clash with their own.

One of the entries can actually be found in older print versions likely lying on the shelves of some households. “Snollygoster," meaning an unprincipled but shrewd person, had nearly fallen out of use entirely by the late 20th century, leading Merriam-Webster to begin excluding it from the editions printed in 2003. But Fox News host Bill O’Reilly brought the 19th-century term often used in US politics back into play in recent years on his show, leading people to again search for its meaning.  

"This is a significant addition of words," Lisa Schneider, the dictionary's chief digital officer and publisher, said in a statement to Reuters. "And it reflects both the breadth of English vocabulary and the speed with which that vocabulary changes."  

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.