Since we were tossed into a surreal world in 2016—you know, that blur of a year when Trump was somehow elected as leader of the free world—Merriam-Webster's dictionary has become a social media favorite. Not just amongst wordsmiths, but anyone who's a fan of intelligent clapbacks and witty cultural commentary. They're not afraid to call out President Dotard himself, and they're proud to be a servant to the people.
On that note, late last week, the multipurpose and incredibly beloved around-the-way word "jawn" was shouted out in Merriam-Webster's Words We're Watching column. Shortly after, Philly Twitter, the word's birthplace, went brazy:
Philadelphia, this jawn's for you. https://t.co/e9Ux87wkA4— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) October 4, 2017
We did it, Philly. Merriam-Webster is considering adding "jawn" to the dictionary. Get the jawn goin' on..with the jawn.— André Gardner (@andregardner) October 5, 2017
BREAKING NEWS: Merriam-Webster is adding "Jawn" to the dictionary. No this isn't a joke.— Justin Grasso (@JGrasso_) October 5, 2017
Merriam-Webster officially recognizes "jawn" as a word. Best thing to come out of Philly since the cheese steak 😂— Anime & 1800 (@AintYouScotty) October 6, 2017
Soo “Jawn” is now a word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary ✊🏽✊🏽😂😂😂 what is the world becoming— J_ (@Jadore_Joy) October 5, 2017
But upon further review, it appeared early celebrators got a little ahead of themselves. As it turns out, there's a significant difference between a shout-out in Words We're Watching and an official listing in the dictionary: long story short, a shout-out is not an official listing.
To get further clarification, I reached out to Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Kory Stamper, who was also the writer behind the "jawn" spotlight column. Stamper talked with me about the process behind selecting new "slang" entries, when these kinds of words started to be regularly evaluated and accepted, the fate of words tied to dated fads like "on fleek" and "dabbing," and what other words might be on the verge of getting an actual entry in Merriam-Webster's dictionary.
How did the word "jawn" pop up on your radar?
I actually live outside of Philadelphia, so I hear that word all the time. But generally speaking, lots of those words that we're watching are things that we either hear in passing or usually it's things that we see on Twitter—trends that we see on social media that kind of help inform us. In the case of "jawn," though, that was personal experience.
So what does it take for a word to be recognized as a "word you’re watching," and then how does that word then get elevated to an actual listing in the dictionary?
Generally speaking, when we highlight a word in the Words We're Watching feature—what we do is, we have a Slack channel that we're all on, and we might say, "Hey, I just ran across this word. Is anyone else familiar with it?" We will often check our usage database. Because part of what we do is define words, but another big chunk of what we do is we hunt down new words. So if we run across new words while we're reading—either print or online—we sort of copy that and dump it into a database so that we can start tracking those words as they gain usage.
Sometimes, we'll just do a search on Twitter or Facebook, or a general web search to see, "Is this a word that is gaining use? Is it something that seems to be spreading a little bit more?" Once we start seeing a word that's gaining a bit more national use, that's a really good candidate for one of the Words We're Watching articles.
From there, it's a different sort of process for a word to be entered as an entry in the dictionary. What we do is go back to all of that written evidence we have been collecting, and we want the word to meet three particular criteria:
First, it has to have widespread use, not just geographically broad use but tonally broad use. So for "jawn," you'd want to see it used not just in Philly media, but also in the Philadelphia Inquirer or Philebrity, a Philly-based website. Or you might want to see something used in both the Wall Street Journal and Vibe. That gives you a sense that this word has really entered the language fully, on all sorts of levels. That's one criterion.
The next one is sustained written use. You want to make sure that the word has fully entered into the general awareness of the public. Oftentimes—especially with slang like "jawn"—regionally, it's understood, but once it starts gaining more national prominence, what happens is you'll see it used in print, but it'll be defined in running text. So, these people will say, "That's some great jawn," then in parentheses, the interviewer or transcriber will say, "'Jawn' is a Philadelphia word that means..." That's a signal that it's not quite established in the language yet. The idea of sustained use is a pretty fluid thing. I think "jawn" has lots of sustained written use; I don't think it has a lot of widespread use yet.
So, widespread use, sustained use—and then, meaningful use. It's got to have a meaning. "Jawn" is one of those words that some people say can mean anything, but it does have specific meanings you can track.
So, when a word meets those three criteria, then we draft an entry for the dictionary. But that’s a separate process from Words We're Watching. Words We're Watching is just a great way to share with people great words that we've run across or words that we've been tracking that we think are really interesting that might have a really fascinating story behind them.
How likely is it that "jawn" will be officially recognized as a word?
It's kind of hard to say. First, each dictionary has its own entry requirements. So not just each dictionary company, but each dictionary within that company. So, I would think for something that's a bit more abridged, like our online dictionary, it might not have quite the national use. It was used in the movie Creed, it has been used in ads, I've heard people say it in Ohio and Philly-adjacent areas. I think it's definitely a word on the move.
The thing that's really hard with English is, lexicographers make really good recorders of the language, but we are really not good prognosticators of where the language is going. Because sometimes words will trick you. I like to use the example of "on fleek," which was everywhere in 2015, and this year, it's dropped out of use again. You just never know what a word is going to do. I think "jawn" has some staying power. I think it's probably a really good candidate for entry into our unabridged dictionary, actually.
Around when did these "slang, youth culture" words start to be regularly evaluated?
I think that, in a lot of ways, slang has always been evaluated for entry into dictionaries. Even pre-dating Merriam-Webster, there's a really great 18th-century dictionary written by a guy named Francis Grose, and he basically did a whole slang dictionary that he called the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
Slang has been something, especially since the late 1600s and 1700s, that lexicographers have been tracking. I think what's really fascinating is some of the bigger dictionaries out there, like Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary, and then Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, these were two really influential English dictionaries that said they were not entering slang; they called it "cant" or "jargon" back then. So they were aware of it—they were tracking it—but decided not to enter it into their dictionaries.
I think you start seeing a lot more slang pop in starting in the late 1800s. Some of that is not so much because more slang is around, but sort of this combination of a change in people thinking what a dictionary should include, and also widespread literacy. Really, for the first time in the English-speaking world, by the 1900s, the vast majority of people have some level of literacy. Which means that you are seeing all sorts of writing, and more people are writing. So, lexicographers get to see and track more of the language than they had before. People are always surprised to hear that slang has always been something lexicographers have considered for entry, whether it ends up in the dictionary or not.
Is there a word in the dictionary that would fall into this category that you are particularly fond of?
I think in terms of Words We're Watching, I really do like "shade" and "read"—I think those are two great ones. I actually love "tea"—like, "spill the tea, sipping tea." I think part of why I love them is because they are so evocative, but I also love that "shade" and "tea," in particular, came from drag slang and black gay slang. I understand this is a contentious issue, but I personally love that there are these very buttoned-down, white, middle-aged men that use "shade" unironically on Twitter with no idea where it came from. The same with tea: people say, "Oh, spill the tea," and I just think, "If you had any idea." If you had read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and read about Lady Chablis, you'd just be like, "Whaaat?"
I just love when slang makes that leap and people you would absolutely not expect to be part of that original speaking community, suddenly adopts it. Even though I know that within the speaking communities, that's contentious, because lots of times, it can be seen as appropriation. But I like that.
Were you involved in the process of getting "throw shade" from the Words We're Watching column into the actual dictionary?
In a weird way, I was not. The way things get entered here at Merriam-Webster is, lots of people assume that if I find a word, then I get to be the one to define it. But generally, the way it works is we all are keeping our eyes open—then, it's really kind of luck of the draw. I might be assigned the letter "s" so I get to define "shade." But if I’m not, then another editor here can look through all of the accumulated evidence or any of the notes that I have left in our defining database that are based on what I wrote, and then they can evaluate what "shade" seems to mean.
I think one of the great things about that process is that if someone writes the definition, then someone else ends up copy editing it, then someone else ends up doing a cross-reference path. So at the end of it, when the new words come out, anybody who has worked on any of the new word entries, all of those words are our babies. By the time you're done with 500 new entries or something, you've spent so much time proofreading them or copy editing them, or keying them into the data or proofreading the data, that you feel like you know them.
The other great thing is if someone makes a mistake in an entry, there are so many other people that can say, "No, that’s not quite right." So even though I didn’t write the definition for "shade" that got into the dictionary, I did a lot of research for that definition that I know was used by the editor that drafted the entry, and looked at by the copy editor.
I noticed in the actual entry for "throw shade," they didn’t include any information or connection to the LGBTQ origins—and I know you were very intentional about including that information in the column. Do you know why that information wasn't included?
Part of why that happened is not so much because we are trying to "straight wash" the entry, but more because of how the entries work. We only give what we call the "ultimate etymology" for a word. So, what we will do is say, "All these senses and meanings of 'shade' ultimately stem from this particular use in another language."
One of the things I love about the online dictionary is if you look up "shade" and find that sense of "throw shade," right underneath of that should be a little box that has articles about language and that word. So even though the structure of the dictionary entry right now doesn’t allow us to go give you in-depth, historical information about each particular sense—because I can write an article about "throw shade" and we can link to it on the main page. Then, if people will say, "That's weird. How does this 'throw shade' have anything to do with areas of darkness? Oh wait, there's this article about it." I think there are lots of people who don’t realize that "throw shade" comes from the LGBTQ community.
I saw a Words We're Watching column on "dabbing," did you do that one?
I think another one of our editors wrote about "dab."
OK, I was just going to check in on the state of that and see if that was gonna make the cut any time soon.
[Laughs.] "Dab," I will say that I do see it used unironically in lots of places. One of my personal metrics for how common a word is and how far into the language it's been accepted is if I stop noticing it in print. If it’s common enough that I'm like, "Oh yeah, another article about 'dabbing' in the New York Times," then it's pretty far in. I'd have to pull up the database to give it a good look and let you know.
Are there any words that we haven’t talked about that are in "urban/slang culture" that have been picked up recently, or are on the cusp of being added?
The one that immediately comes to mind is "lit"—the new sense of "lit" to mean excellent. I feel like that might be on the cusp of being added soon. I don’t have a date for you, but it seems to me like you're seeing a lot more use of it. It’s one of those slang words that is starting to become unnoticeable in the contexts it's in; lots of these words, especially now that we're doing so much stuff online. I feel like in a lot of ways, there are a lot of words right on the cusp. There is way more language than there are lexicographers in the world. We just need a million more years to catch up on all of the entries. [Laughs.]