Updates to dictionaries take place regularly enough that it seems like someone is always grumbling over this word or that phrase being included in that most esteemed place we think of when we think of words—"friend with benefits" is in the OED, really? Well, yes. But sometimes the lexicographers themselves are surprised by what they find in the updates, too. Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper writes today on the dictionary's blog, "That was my experience when I was looking through some of the new entries we've added to the New Unabridged and stumbled across anyhoo, an informal and humorous synonym of the sentence adverb anyhow." (She was not just surprised, she was thrilled: "I blinked, then cooed: I grew up using anyhoo, and finding it in the New Unabridged was like seeing a long-lost childhood friend on the subway.")
Stamper and her colleagues have been working on revisions to the New Unabridged for "years now"—the update, which is behind a paywall, went live in March, she tells me. In the future the edition will get regular updates a few times yearly, including not just new vocabulary but also "usage notes, some dates of first written usage, expanded example sentences, and we now allow subscibers the chance to actually see some of the raw data we use in writing definitions." If you are a dictionary nerd like I am, this may make you rather light-headed.
Furthering that light-headedness, Stamper gave me a peek into some of the other new additions to the New Unabridged, the "most inclusive" of all of Merriam-Webster's dictionaries. Anyhoo's companions in the category of "informal and slang" are similarly evocative, from achy-breaky (adjective, informal: achingly sad) to angsty (adjective, informal: feeling, showing, or expressing anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity : marked by angst) to apeshit (adjective, vulgar slang: very excited or angry : WILD, CRAZY—usually used with go) and so on. If you've seen it on a blog or heard it from the mouth of a teen, a politician, or a Brooklyn hipster type, it's probably here: cougar, junk (for male genitalia), skeevy, smack, gastropub, super PAC, craft beer. Elsewhere, there's air rage, bucket list, game changer, robocall, mashup, alt-country, slider, crowdsourcing, cyberbullying, viral, helicopter parent, RSS, and above-the-fold (including a secondary definition: "located prominently near the top of the page in an electronic document (such as an e-mail or a Web page). There are many more, and then there's my personal favorite, arsey, categorized as a variety of English. What's arsey, you ask?
1Australian Slang : LUCKY I just cannot believe Parramatta won and we lost. We were a 10-point better side, they scored two arsey tries and we had two disallowed, which you could see for sure were OK.—Geoff Johnson, quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Sept. 1991
2 British Slang : maliciously spiteful, bad-tempered, or unreasonable When I told my girlfriend I was going for a drink with my flatmate, she got really arsey. —James Petherbridge, Daily Mirror (England), 11 Aug. 2001 He was just asking you a question and you have to come over all arsey.—Zadie Smith, White Teeth, 2000
Among the many fascinating tidbits one can glean from the New Unabridged update is that Terry McMillan was way out ahead of most of the rest of us with her use of supermom; a citation shows her as having used it back in 1992 in Waiting to Exhale.
But back to anyhoo! Stamper writes on her post, "As I read through the entry, my giddiness waxed back into surprise: anyhoo has been in written use since 1850. Why wasn't it entered into our unabridged dictionaries until now?" Fortunately, she herself answers that question: Anyhoo's first use was "in a representation of Irish speech ("The divil a bit do I care for the Quane; it's a small bit o' praise that I'd be afther givin' her, anyhoo." [William Balch, Ireland, as I saw It, 1850]) and it appeared sporadically in print for the next 100 years, usually in reported or fictional dialogue," she writes—until the '90s brought a spike in the use, as "its breezy informality became a boon and not a burden, and writers had a bit of an infatuation with anyhoo." That surge in use continued, and anyhoo appeared in such mainstream entities as The Lion King and Groundhog Day. Now it's found its rightful place in the New Unabridged, thanks to its "solid, sustained usage in publications like the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and even the New York Times."
Just as the words of today find their places in our dictionaries in the inevitable, necessary updates to the editions—whether people have a hissy fit [citation: Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, 1998] about that or not—sometimes the words of times past again become the words of now. Language is fun like that.
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Photo of the Merriam-Webster editorial floor circa 1955, during the production of Webster's Third.
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