Dictionary matters

I have dictionaries on the brain – more than usual – having just read and reviewed Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word. So it’s a good time to share a couple of posts I wrote for the blog at Macmillan Dictionary, which, incidentally, underwent a makeover recently.

The first post has a self-explanatory title: What does it mean when a word is not in the dictionary?

No English dictionary includes every single word – not even the Oxford English Dictionary. . . . Nor does the OED – or any other dictionary – include every word from the many sublanguages, dialects, and specialist lingos: this would be an impossible task. Macmillan Dictionary, by contrast, includes historical words only if they’re still in common use. And because it’s primarily a learner’s dictionary, it forgoes obsolete usages altogether. Macmillan’s focus on contemporary language means that one of its strengths is how quickly it keeps up with the changes and new additions to English vocabulary.

The example I focus on is snowflake, in its non-weather-related sense, because it’s common enough that people are encountering it regularly and looking it up, but it’s also new enough that it’s not yet listed in most dictionaries.


A world of English at Macmillan Dictionary looks at an ongoing series from Macmillan called Real World English. This is a set of videos and blog posts about dialectal variation in English vocabulary and pragmatics, especially between UK and US English in a work context.

One of the motifs of the Real World English series is that these varieties of English have different standards and conventions. None of them are necessarily more correct than any others, but what’s normal and obvious in one dialect may be obscure or ambiguous in another. Being aware of how various Englishes diverge in usage can help us improve our understanding of, and communication with, people who speak another variety. This is an increasingly important skill in work and social situations, now that telecommunications and internet technology have made the world smaller. We often communicate with people on several different continents every day, especially if we use social media.

The post goes on to discuss the range of dialects featured in the series or in other resources on the website, including Brazilian English, Indian English, Philippine English, and so on. You can also read older posts at my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

6 Responses to Dictionary matters

  1. John Cowan says:

    I found the word peth-winds in The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley and sent it to the OED. They basically replied “too obscure even for us”. It evidently refers to some sort of convolvuli.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting term. I ran a search and found the Kingsley use and your comments on it elsewhere. So David Crystal think it’s from turpeth: I’m not qualified to speculate on the speculation, but it’s fun to wonder.

  2. One of my creative writing students brought in a dictionary, the most recent edition (I think it was Webster’s for young readers–or something like that). It doesn’t have the word “ninja” in it. I think that’s crazy!

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Interestingly, the word “snowflake” is used on many newsfeeds I get, particularly when referring to petulant men.

    I play Scrabble daily and was astounded at some of the Irish (Gaeilge) words allowed, like plamas. Must be general usage or an eccentric dictionary.


    • Stan Carey says:

      I tend to see snowflake levelled at Generation X-ers by Trump supporters, or vice versa. And it seemed to be reappropriated very soon after being popularised as an insult: ‘enough snowflakes make a blizzard’, that sort of thing.

      Plamas is a surprising inclusion in a Scrabble dictionary! Maybe Hasbro or Mattel is trying to plámás Irish players.

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