Hinky!

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Reader Brian Clark writes:

I have a two-year running dispute with my brother about the existence of the word 'hinky.' I had used it in a sentence, "Well, my car's brakes are feeling a little hinky." He did not believe in the word, so I bought him an unabridged dictionary, I believe American Heritage or some such, and hinky was not in there, but then I found a different one, Oxford maybe, and there was the word. So, who decides the veracity of words and how they will make it into a certain dictionary?

I'll answer that after the jump.


"Hinky" appears in two of the four contemporary American dictionaries (the New Oxford American, which is fast becoming my favorite everyday dictionary, and Merriam-Webster's). But it's not in the American Heritage or Webster's New World. 

The lexicographers who made those choices do pretty much what I recommended in my post about the status of "conversate," except that they have proprietary databases, which are a good deal more sophisticated than Google News. When they're trying to decide whether to include a new word, they count how many times a word has been used over a period of time, in contexts they care about. Most dictionaries except urbandictionary.com would treat presidential speeches, for instance, as a more important context than online chat-room chat.

However, a factor that comes into play for lexicographers but not for us, when we're researching words, is that they publish their dictionaries only so often -- so they usually can't include brand-new words even if they want to. Another factor is that they're making a product to sell. So they have a page budget, which tends to mean that they'll need to cut a word somewhere for every word they add. They're responsible for implementing a marketing strategy -- so is their dictionary promoted as being the most up-to-date one, or the one that does the best job explaining traditional usage, or ... ? That affects what they include too.

Such things don't just affect the dictionary in isolation. Case in point: "hinky" and Webster's New World. This dictionary's claim to fame is that it's the official dictionary of the Associated Press. Therefore, any publication that uses the AP Stylebook -- which is to say, most newspapers and many newsletters and magazines -- is likely to look askance at "hinky," because it's not in the dictionary. And therefore, the word won't make it into professionally edited journalistic writing very often. Sure enough, Google News today returns just 24 instances of "hinky," and many of those are from blogs (including my colleague Marc Ambinder's). The Webster's New World lexicographers will tell you that their job is to reflect English as it is used, but in fact they are unintentionally shaping how English is used. 

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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