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How words find their way into English dictionaries

While most words are common in speech, there are several that have rarely been written down and haven’t found space in English dictionaries.

How words find their way into English dictionaries

When something fantastic catches your attention, what would you exclaim – jhakaas, bombat or semma? Is a cunning guy chaalu, chatri or shaana? Would you call your friend yaar, macha or bondhu?

The world of words is the most extraordinary of things as it gives expression to everything under the sun. Every single word that we use daily stands, often without our realisation, for something unique, something that the given word is used to give expression to.

But while most words are common in speech, there are several that have rarely been written down.

For 54-year-old lexicographer Peter Gilliver, words like "spuggy" and "netty" were perfectly ordinary as he had been familiar with them since his childhood, but he was surprised that neither of them had made their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

"I can recall some words which my grandmother used, like 'spuggy' meaning a sparrow, or 'netty' meaning a toilet, which were very familiar to me, but which are little used outside the north-east of England, where grandma lived," Gilliver, the OED Associate Editor said.

He said he brought these words with him as "just about everyone, who comes to work for the OED, brings some regional dialect words, which they learned when they were young, and which are not familiar to people from other regions".

There are now entries in the dictionary for both words, which exhibits that their history can be traced back over 100 years, actually 200 years in the case of "netty".

"I think there must be similar words in every region of the English-speaking world, which are very familiar to people living there but little known outside the region; we are glad to learn about such words, so that we can research them and consider adding them to the OED," Gilliver said.

Closer home in India, almost everyone can certainly recall a moment when a word in their native language – the language they've known and used for years at home – baffles people from other parts of our own country.

Again, most such words are common in speech but some are rarely written down and so they can easily escape the attention of dictionary editors.

There are also many English words, commonly used in India, that haven't found space in English dictionaries.

Angus Stevenson, OED's Head of Content Development, said that their dictionaries of current English, in particular the online text, contains many hundreds of examples of Indian English as well, and many that derive from Hindi and other Indian languages.

"We are particularly interested in words such as 'air-dash', 'batch mate', and 'calling bell', which are genuine examples of an Indian variety of English, and would very much like to expand our coverage," Stevenson said.

"We are planning projects to gather and define words from Indian and other under-represented areas of English – for example, we cover South African English but have not yet attempted to describe the English used in other parts of the African continent," he added.

The first English dictionary goes back to at least the 16th century and the era of the Renaissance, which was a time, somewhat like our own, in which there was a huge amount of rapid change, and many new influences on the English language.

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