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How do dictionaries remain ‘on point’?

Although you might deny it, everyone can relate to a time when you hear a term such as ‘FOMO’ or ‘hundo’ in casual conversation and have to secretly look up its meaning later. Now, dictionaries are doing the same via online crowdsourcing.

In the age of memes, emojis and internet slang the modern lexicon is rapidly evolving, and new research into online reference site Urban Dictionary has revealed its potential usefulness in documenting language trends.

The website, created in 1999 by then-college student Aaron Peckman, relies solely on user-generated, unmoderated submissions to compile its dictionary of slang words.

According to the new study by British researchers, the word ‘selfie’ for example first appeared on Urban Dictionary in 2009, four years prior to its entry on OxfordDictionaries.com.

The top definition for ‘selfie.’ Photo: Urban Dictionary

Report author Taha Yasseri, from the University of Oxford, said crowd-sourced reference tools such as Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia played an important role in their ability to collect information with both speed and inclusivity.

“Crowd-based platforms offer great potentials,” Dr Yasseri said.

“Through this line of research I would like to learn more how we can make the most of this opportunity that the internet has provided us with.”

Co-author of the report Dong Nguyen said the strength of Urban Dictionary lay in its ability to capture a range of voices from society, bringing new layers to the same topic.

Australian National Dictionary Centre researcher and editor Mark Gwynn said lexicographers at traditional dictionaries aimed to see if a word had “got legs”, before then conducting in-depth research for information such as context and areas of usage.

Mr Gwynn said traditional dictionaries were also trying to find ways to harness the potential of the internet to keep up to date.

He said the centre had been increasingly using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to engage with the public directly.

A recent post asking for the different names of a common kitchen utensil resulted in 250,000 comments and lively debate, providing useful information for the centre’s researchers.

“What the online appeals today and the internet provide is a chance to get people more engaged, and very quickly,” Mr Gwynn said.

“Something like the Oxford Dictionary for example also includes a blog and it includes updates that are not in the dictionary just yet but they’re like, ‘look at this word that just came out this week in the news’ … so it’s on the radar so to speak.”

Mr Gwynn said the unique purpose of each dictionary led to different approaches.

“There’s different purposes for dictionaries. So a school dictionary for example… is a very very different dictionary to a larger dictionary or an online dictionary,” he said.

“With the Oxford English Dictionary one of its main purposes is to record, as an historical document, the language. It won’t necessarily put ‘selfie’ in straight away, but it’s got an important role in doing the research.”

Slang words are being increasingly featured in more mainstream sources, such as Dictionary.com, which also includes explanations for memes and emoji metaphors.

Dictionary.com linguist-in-residence Jane Solomon said emoji content went through the same level of lexicographical research as words.

She said the dictionary had also begun a project collating and defining words informally before more thorough research, allowing for emerging memes and slang to be added to the site quickly.

“This looser long-form style has given us the ability to quickly add new words to our site, even if we’re not quite sure how long people will be interested in looking up these terms,” she said.

“A dictionary is a forever evolving document because it reflects the English language, which is constantly changing.”

Dr Nguyen said it was important for unofficial online sources and traditional dictionaries alike to document slang as it emerged in society.

“I think documenting for example slang is useful for a linguistics and social perspective, because it tells you more about society and the people who use it,” she said.

“It’s interesting data for a lot of researchers.”

Dr Nguyen said the Urban Dictionary study was the first known examination of the site in its entirety and was aimed as a preliminary investigation with more in-depth research to come.

“Something that we’d really like to see is when a word gets entered into Urban Dictionary, does it impact how often a word is used for example in social media.”

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