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define useful

How do you decide what makes it into a dictionary?

“If there are ten different ways to say the word dragonfly, you only need one simple version,” says one dictionary editor.

HOW DO EDITORS decide what makes it into a dictionary?

How do you decide which definition is the most accurate, and what is and isn’t a word?

Every time words like Brexit, YOLO, and selfie are added to dictionaries, people complain about the dilution of language, and dumbing down of words. People argue that we should stop abbreviations and acronyms from being included.

But the history of dictionaries shows that adding words based on how often they’re used is how it’s always worked.

In fact, the editor of a recently published English-Irish dictionary, the first in 30 years to document how the Irish use words, says that it’s the inclusion of simple words that make dictionaries useful to people.

Define ‘dictionary’

The beginning of English dictionaries began with something called a ‘wordbook’, which was published in 1538. Almost 50 years later, it was followed by another publication compiled by a headmaster, who described his collection as ”a generall table [of 8,000 words] we commonlie use.” (Which is correct spelling for the time; this is the late 16th century remember.)

These early editions had some obvious flaws – the main one being that there weren’t definitions of the words, just a record of the most commonly-used ones.

Word of the Year AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Another problem with these publications and ones that came after was that there didn’t seem to be any definite process. One edition for example, although it did include definitions, it left out words beginning with ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’.

The first publication of what we’d now call a dictionary was Johnson’s Dictionary (anyone who’s played the board game About Time will recognise the name).

Samuel Johnson was commissioned with compiling the dictionary, complete with definitions, in three years for the price of 1,500 guineas (worth over €253,000 today).

Although it took him eight years to complete it’s understandable, as he compiled the book completely by himself, with just a stenographer’s help.

The meticulousness of Johnson’s work is obvious, but there’s more than that to this dictionary to the point that it’s entertaining. He used illustrations, poems and other literary writings to show how words are used.

He also used a good bit of humour, giving us an insight into his job here:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words

Here’s another piece of humour, this containing echoes of Urban Dictionary:

Oats: A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people

Screenshot 2017-03-11 at 10.06.07 Johnson's Dictionary Johnson's Dictionary


For bilingual dictionaries, the process is slightly different. Pádraig Ó Mianáin is the editor of an English-Irish dictionary published online this week.

He spoke to to give us an idea of the process, which for this dictionary, began in 2000.

“First you collect the terms from material in the source language, in this case that’s the English language, and you provide the Irish-language equivalent. This doesn’t mean a ‘direct’ translation, that doesn’t always sound natural.”

He says you might give ten translations for a word. But the second stage is whittling these options down to just one or two, which is the editor’s job.

“The editor will select the one or two of the most relevant, modern terms. Finally there’s the revision before the book goes to print.”

Although the high costs of printing dictionaries has seen a shift towards online search engine websites, there’s a lot about the process of making dictionaries that’s changing that isn’t technology’s fault.

Brexit PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

‘How do you pronounce that?’

“Fewer and fewer people can understand phonetic script,” says Ó Mianáin. “So what’s been happening, you’d have the phonetics of the word and people were confusing that with the spelling of the word.”

So they’ve used their online website focló to upload sound files. Not wanting to favour any one Irish-language dialect, Ó Mianáin says there’s three major sound files for Irish words.

“It wouldn’t be acceptable to provide only one dialect. The Irish for ‘dog’ for example is very different in all three dialects. It’s pronounced [the way it's spelled] ‘madra’ in Munster; ‘mada’ in Connaught; and ‘madú’ in Ulster.”

shutterstock_401837899 Shutterstock / nenetus Shutterstock / nenetus / nenetus

So what are the challenges with compiling dictionaries in Ireland?

“The first major Irish-English dictionary came out in the 1950s, Ó Dónaill came out in the 1970s, so there was a 30-year gap that had to be filled.

The world had changed a lot in that time: technology had advanced, and computers came along after those dictionaries.

“Back in those days, dictionaries were more formal and wouldn’t have reflected slang, or rude usage even.”

Which seems a shame, since the Irish have such a varied arsenal of unique put-downs.


Ó Mianáin didn’t want the dictionary too be “too academic”; rather they wanted it to reflect what people were more likely to say. So they began exercises where their team would have to translate passages entirely off the top of their heads.

But was this not controversial? Choosing words that people use most often, sometimes means choosing the new words over older, traditional words in the language.

“There was a lot of debate amongst the editing team. We’d all worked in the Irish language as linguists or editors. But English-Irish dictionaries are mostly people who don’t know how to say something, so if we give someone a version that hasn’t been spoken for generations, it’s not doing them a service.”

shutterstock_558603178 If there are ten ways to say the word dragonfly, you only need one simple version, says Ó Mianáin. Shutterstock / Costea Andrea M Shutterstock / Costea Andrea M / Costea Andrea M

We don’t want people to turn up in a bar in the Gaeltacht, use a word, and people respond by saying I’ve never heard that before.

When it comes to certain trends in the use of words, Ó Mianáin says that’s about monitoring how words are used.

“The word ‘trend’ for example, has been around for hundreds of years, but only in recent times has it become a common verb. Other words that are coming to the fore are ‘fatal foetal abnormality’, ‘water charges’, ‘Brexit’, and ‘life-limiting conditions.’”

With their work on an English-Irish dictionary finished, Ó Mianáin says that after the book version is published, they’ll focus on an Irish-English and an Irish-Irish dictionary.

“There shouldn’t have been the gap that there was between publishing dictionaries here,” says Ó Mianáin, saying the international standard for dictionaries is 10 years, even for minority languages.

“We don’t have an English dictionary of our own, so these Irish dictionaries are the only ones we have [documenting how we use language].”

Read: Selfie, alt-right and pre-drinks added to new English-Irish dictionary

Read: Oxford Dictionaries name “post-truth” its word of 2016

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