Hinky!

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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