How Did "Muffin Top," "LOL" and "OMG" Get into the Oxford English Dictionary?

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March 25 2011 4:42 PM

How Did "Muffin Top," "LOL" and "OMG" Get into the Oxford English Dictionary?

On Thursday, teenagers around the world discovered that they weren't, like, the first generation to use OMG. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , which listed the acronym among its newest crop of word additions, that distinction goes to British Navy Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher. In 1917, Fisher wrote this sentence in a letter: "I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G.(Oh! My God!)­—Shower it on the Admiralty!" He sent the letter to Winston Churchill.

Other additions this quarter include muffin top, which was first referenced as a baked good in 1914 and as the flesh roll that hangs over a waistband in 2003. The OED team has also admitted LOL, which first appeared in an electronic archive circa 1990, and a new sense for the word heart : "to love" (as in "I heart Slate"),which was first seen in print in a 1983 Associated Press article. (Some news outlets misreported that the ♥ symbol itself was being added to the OED.)

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So how did these words snag a spot in the famous dictionary?

They matched a few key criteria. In order for a word to be chosen, it must be in widespread, frequent use. The general population should understand it. (Yes, you might need to explain LOL to your grandma. But most people have a sense of what it means). Since the OED doesn't simply define a word, but records its entire usage history, a word must also have a substantive lifespan before it wins a coveted entry. "We are quite cautious about including things," says Graeme Diamond, the principal editor of the New Words Group in the OED. "We want a word to have led a bit of a life before we write its biography."

As far as what constitutes "a bit of a life," there are no hard and fast rules for length of usage, or even usage frequency. Diamond says the minimum lifespan is generally five years, but that's not always the case. Some words get an expedited inclusion if they seem historically significant. Jesse Sheidlower, an Oxford English Dictionary editor-at-large and Slate contributor, recalls AIDS as one word that was added in quickly.

But since words are never removed from the OED, even if they eventually fade from everyday language, they must pass a certain threshold of usage. "We want to be sure that we're dealing with something that, if only for a while, was a genuine piece of the English language," says Diamond. Usage frequency can be tricky to quantify, especially for acronyms like OMG and LOL, which matured primarily over the Internet before moving into verbal speech. Diamond says there's no special editorial process for such nebulous Internet vernacular. Actually, since the lexicographers were able to find written verification for both OMG and LOL, it was relatively easy to document their uses throughout time. This can be trickier when a nominated word is used primarily in oral communication. In that case, lexicographers often rely on television and film scripts.

So what's next for the OED? Diamond says the New Words Group is currently monitoring Twitter-speak. "We don't know if the Twitter phenomenon will continue, and we don't know how those words will extend," he says, explaining that tweet could start to mean sharing an opinion in a broader sense. "We want to learn if that will happen before sharing the story of the word."

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.

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