Photo © Louise E. Robbins
Rolling out a new word
English speakers, like speakers of every language, make up new words all the time. Some of these words stick, become part of the general vocabulary, and enter dictionaries, and others don’t. In my family, we used to call spaghetti “pasketti.” But that word didn’t travel far beyond our own home, and if I tried to sneak it into the dictionary, one of my fellow editors would kick it right back out.
As dictionary editors, we throw a wide net to catch legitimate new words, sampling corpora (large collections of writings), newspapers, blogs, and so on. Sometimes we find novelties right in front of our faces. During my bicycle commute to work last summer, I noticed that on certain main roads, toward the right side of the lane, the city had begun painting symbols that consisted of an outline of a bicycle with two upside-down Vs above it. The symbols appeared on roads that are frequented by bicyclists but are too narrow for dedicated bike lanes. “I wonder if those symbols have a name?” I thought. An online search quickly turned up the term “sharrow.” Upon further research, we determined that the word had begun to appear regularly in media outlets with national reach, so we decided to add it to the dictionary. Now we had to define it: the definition had to accurately describe the elements of the symbol and its purpose; it had to be clear to a person who has never seen one; and ideally it would be no more than one sentence long. After several rounds of revision, which included deciding to use a more elegant term than “upside-down V,” we came up with a definition that fit all our criteria. Next, we had to figure out how it’s pronounced. And where does the word come from? Is it named for a Ms./Mr. Sharrow? To find out what we came up with for the definition, pronunciation, and etymology, see the entry at sharrow.
— Louise E. Robbins, Editor