How a Word gets into the Merriam-Webster dictionary

To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it’s used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.

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Use your words

Merriam-Webster: How a word gets into the dictionary

This is one of the questions Merriam-Webster editors are most often asked.
The answer is simple: usage.

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William Shakespeare
Use your words

To be or not to be… original

The Guardian: The game is up: Shakespeare’s language not as original as dictionaries think

In an article for the University of Melbourne, Dr David McInnis, a Shakespeare lecturer at the institution, accuses the Oxford English Dictionary of “bias” over its citation of Shakespeare as the originator of hundreds of words in English.

“His audiences had to understand at least the gist of what he meant, so his words were mostly in circulation already or were logical combinations of pre-existing concepts.”

McInnis: If something happens “without rhyme or reason”, people are said to be quoting Shakespeare’s As You Like It, when Rosalind asks Orlando whether he is as head-over-heels in love as his rhymes suggest, and Orlando replies “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much”.

The OED traces the phrase back to the 1400s – centuries before Shakespeare. So why do we think it’s Shakespeare’s coinage?

Probably because, as happens so frequently, Shakespeare isn’t the first to think of something, but he presents it in such a clever or memorable way, that it becomes firmly associated with his version.

McInnis also traces the roots of other famous ‘Shakespearean’ phrases like “it’s greek to me”, “a wild goose chase”, “eaten out of house and home”. It’s not all OED ‘bias’ however; the bard did have a knack for coining and popularising turns of phrase, like “to make an ass of oneself”…

To describe behaving stupidly and embarrassing yourself as “making an ass of yourself” seems like a very contemporary expression, but Shakespeare seems to have genuinely invented both the easy-to-quote phrase and a very memorable situation. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom the Weaver is magically turned into an ass. Other characters remark upon Bottom’s transformation, but he thinks they’re just mocking him: “This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could.”

See also: Churchillian drift: How great quotations find their way to famous names

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A Turkish typewriter
Use your words

Lessons about language from a Turkish typewriter

What I learned about languages just by looking at a Turkish typewriter, by Marcin Wichary, Design lead & typographer at Medium.

I don’t speak Turkish, and can’t read it either. I have never been to Turkey. I honestly don’t even know that much about Turkey. Why did I ask for a Turkish typewriter, then? Because it has one of the most fascinating keyboard layouts ever.

Some highlights:

  1. We’re not beholden to Q·W·E·R·T·YThe new layout had nothing in common with Q·W·E·R·T·Y. It was ergonomically superior, and measured to be up to twice as fast in typing; Turkey went on to break dozens of world records in typewriting championships before the end of century.
  2. Accented characters aren’t always second-class citizensTo me, this keyboard says “we’re proud of our language and we will treat it with respect.”
  3. Each language has a crazy secret…in Turkish, i gets capitalized to… İ, its tittle still there. But I exists also! And its lowercase form is, you guessed it… ı. Dotted i and dotless ı coexist in perfect harmony, and both have separate keys on the keyboard.
  4. Some of those other languages need to be accommodated alsoLook at the Turkish keyboard. There are three letters, w, x, and q, in a somewhat unusual location: right next to the digits in the top row.
  5. Punctuation is the first to go when sacrifices need to be madeSince backspacing was often physically difficult — welcome to the mechanical world — typewriters invented a certain power user shortcut. To type two characters in one space you would hold the spacebar, press as many characters as needed, and then release the spacebar to move to the next position.

See also: 216 positive emotions that have no direct English translation

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Deathly Hallows emotional arc graph
Use your words

The six basic emotional arcs of storytelling, as revealed by data mining

MIT Technology Review: Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory have analyzed novels to identify the building blocks of all stories.

Sentiment analysis was used to map the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories. Then data-mining techniques revealed the most common arcs.

“We find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”

Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.

The six basic emotional arcs

The six basic emotional arcs are these:

A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.


Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

Back in 1995, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he described his theory about the shapes of stories. In the process, he plotted several examples on a blackboard. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” he said. “They are beautiful shapes.”

Update: On Scriptnotes episode 259, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin had a harsh critique of this research:

Mazin: “Of all of these, this one truly is the dumbest. It’s bad science that provides clickbaiters something to say, but it teaches you nothing. It is the emptiest of noise.”

See also

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Gone Girl — Don’t Underestimate the Screenwriter

Michael Tucker: Gone Girl uses classic screenwriting techniques to tell its twisty, modern noir story. This video examines three of the techniques used by screenwriter Gillian Flynn to see how and why they work so well.

Other Lessons from the Screenplay

(via Laughing Squid)

Lessons from the Screenplay

See also: The origins and formatting of modern screenplays

Tim Lomas
Use your words

216 positive emotions that have no direct English translation

Quartz: There are hundreds of positive emotions that have no direct English translation

University of East London psychology lecturer Tim Lomas has corralled some of the most striking non-English words about emotions for Westerners to appreciate. While the words describe phenomena experienced and celebrated by many cultures, no easily-expressible equivalents exist in English.

The paper has two main aims. First, it aims to provide a window onto cultural differences in constructions of well-being, thereby enriching our understanding of well-being. Second, a more ambitious aim is that this lexicon may help expand the emotional vocabulary of English speakers (and indeed speakers of all languages), and consequently enrich their experiences of well-being.

Many of these (like zeitgeist, chutzpa, savoir-faire and nirvana) are in common English usage. I’ve excerpted some of the ones I found most interesting…

Feelings: Positive

  • Se déhancher (French, v.): to sway or wiggle one’s hips (e.g., while dancing).
  • Desbundar (Portuguese, v.): shedding one’s inhibitions in having fun.
  • Feierabend (German, n.): festive mood at the end of a working day.
  • Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu, v): to shed clothes to dance uninhibited.
  • Pretoogjes (Dutch, n.): lit. ‘fun eyes’; the eyes of a chuckling person engaging in benign mischief.
  • Ramé (Balinese, n.): something at once chaotic and joyful.
  • Samar (سمر) (Arabic, v.): to sit together in conversation at sunset/ in the evening.
  • Schnapsidee (German, n.): a daft / ridiculous plan thought up while drunk (generally used pejoratively).
  • Sobremesa (Spanish, n.): when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing.
  • Sólarfrí (Icelandic, n.): sun holiday, i.e., when workers are granted unexpected time off to enjoy a particularly sunny/warm day.
  • Tertulia (Spanish, n.): a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones.
  • Utepils (Norwegian, n.): a beer that is enjoyed outside (particularly on the first hot day of the year).
  • Mерак (Serbian, n.): pleasure derived from simple joys.
  • Cwtch (Welsh, n.): to hug, a safe welcoming place.
  • Trygghet (Swedish, n.): security, safety, confidence, certainty, trust.
  • Estrenar (Spanish, v.): to use or wear something for the first time.
  • Fjellvant (Norwegian) (adj.): Being accustomed to walk in the mountains.
  • Flâneur (French, n.): someone who wanders the streets to experience the city.
  • Hugfanginn (Icelandic) (adj.): lit. ‘mind-captured’, to be charmed or fascinated by someone/something.
  • Shemomechama (შემომეჭამა) (Georgian, v.): eating past the point of satiety due to sheer enjoyment.
  • Tyvsmake (Norwegian, v.): to taste or eat small pieces of the food when you think nobody is watching, especially when cooking.
  • Kukelure (Norwegian, v.): to sit and ponder, without engaging in activity.
  • Zanshin (残心) (Japanese, n.): a state of relaxed mental alertness (especially in the face of danger or stress).
  • Nirvāna (निर्वाण) (Sanskrit, n.): ‘ultimate’ happiness, total liberation from suffering.
Positive lexicography, by themes

Positive lexicography, by themes

More foreign feelings →

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