How Oxford Dictionary got its words — and almost every word in English — to go viral

The doughnut has just never stopped putting out great new flavors. The sausage rolls called popsis, the Twinkies-like flapjacks called pork-lover’s baps, the fun-stuffed Christmaks, the breakfast tots … how, exactly, does the Oxford Dictionary get them all in one pile of words, picks them out, and decides which ones make the best combinations?

“Ordinary English names — too long and verbose for any translation to an everyday tongue, like ‘blind squirrel’ or ‘rabbit’ — haven’t been as easy to translate as some complicated, longer names associated with ancient cultures,” explains Elliot Fox of Oxford Dictionaries’ blog.

“So, how does a dictionary catch up with changes in language?” the researchers asked themselves. “We like to think of it as the king of all dictionary labels: the who, why, and when.”

Of course, dictionaries are an integral part of the culture because people get words as a habit, but they have had to be more adept at picking out new pieces of vocabulary from the rest of the English language. Translation is often crucial in popularizing an idea in the popular media, and the frontiers of international politics are on the rise. And more and more, we’re using social media to share ideas and create networks of connections.

“Having previously looked at translating seemingly foreign-sounding names, [the scientists] wanted to extend their understanding to more international pairings,” Fox tells The Washington Post.

For example, they initially wanted to focus on Sanskrit names like Vijayatra or Pahlaja. But no one would give them the right translation for the words. What about Danish? Then they realized how a word’s translation depends on the political climate, so they opted for political-leaning Persian names to broaden their scope. Then there’s Spanish and Greek — that combination is already sitting in a pool of words, after all.

“We tried not to narrow the spectrum down to just one simple word, but rather look at a dozen words that have been adopted in a way that is relevant to the language,” says Fox.

They looked at about 90 different languages from across the world. They chose 15 pairs of terms from each that shared at least one part of the name, the social-media-connected column. Then they looked at which would sound best in English.

While linguists have tried to reach out to me before about these findings, it’s always useful to hear about it from a dictionary — not just because of the fun words you can learn to speak, but because it’s ultimately true.

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