'YOLO', short for 'you only live once', encourages people to seize the day
'YOLO', short for 'you only live once', encourages people to seize the day
Brendan Lim (Flickr)

'YOLO', 'mansplain', 'clickbait' - how do words get added to Oxford Dictionaries?

Clemency Pleming

The latest crop of new words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online, from 'amazeballs' to 'zonkey', has been making headlines this month. Commentators have been amused, intrigued and even enraged by the addition of 'clickbait', 'side-eye', 'neckbeard', 'mansplain" and others.

Some of the new additions, like 'bedroom tax', have become a part of public discourse in the UK, while others reflect scientific discoveries: the 'olinguito' is a South American mammal first described in 2013.

But when it comes to more informal and unusual terms like 'air punch' and 'YOLO', how does the Oxford Dictionaries team track down new words, and how do they decide which ones to preserve?

Allison Wright, Editor at Oxford Dictionaries, explains: 'We never leave words out of dictionaries on the grounds that they aren't 'good English'. Similarly, if a word is used only in very informal contexts, or only by specific groups of people, or if it is offensive in some way, we make this clear in the dictionary entry.'

Oxford University Press operates two major language research programmes which serve as its hunting ground for new words: the Oxford English Corpus and the Oxford Reading Programme. The Corpus is made up of full-length documents, while the Reading Programme relies on an international network of volunteers, who submit shorter extracts. These are drawn from a variety of sources in English, from song lyrics to academic journals, and enable researchers to keep an eye on new words and meanings.

Once a new word has been identified, evidence is needed to prove that the word has been used in a variety of different sources, by more than one writer, before it can be considered for inclusion in one of the dictionaries. Evidence for new words must be recorded in writing, whether that means print books and newspapers, online sites and message-boards, or scripts for film and television.

In the past, a word needed to be in use for two or three years before it could be considered. The rapid pace of change in our digital world means that new terms can gain ground very rapidly, so this is no longer the case. But it does present another challenge to the lexicographers, since they now need to judge whether a new word is likely to stay with us or quickly fall out of usage. Once all these criteria have been considered, a word may be added to one of the dictionaries.

This recent crop of words was added to Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), a resource which aims to provide a snapshot of the ways in which English is used by people around the world today. Words are removed when they become obsolete, and entries are arranged so that the most common definitions are listed first: the first definition of 'car' is 'a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal-combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people'.

In June this year, we heard that 'selfie', 'flexitarian' and 'citizen science' - among more than 1000 others - were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike the ODO, the OED is a historical dictionary, which records the origins and development of each word, tracking hundreds or even thousands of years of etymological history.

Definitions are ordered chronologically, so the first definitions of 'car' include references to horse-drawn carriages, sledges and ceremonial chariots. The criteria for inclusion are more stringent: a word must reach 'a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood' -  if the writer always feels the need to gloss the word for the reader’s benefit, this indicates that word has more work to do. However, once a word has made it into the OED, even if it becomes obsolete, it will never be removed.

Only time will tell if 'YOLO', 'clickbait' and 'mansplain' develop the same staying power.