Starting today, the Double-Tongued Dictionary is now a part of A Way with Words! That means that more than 18,000 dictionary records are now at home here and searchable from the top of every page. These are undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon, and new words — and we’ll keep adding to them.
History of Double-Tongued Dictionary
In 2004, when Grant Barrett was a newbie lexicographer (and not yet the A Way with Words co-host), he needed a sandbox to practice lexicography. He wanted a place outside of his day job working on the Historical Dictionary of American Slang for Oxford University Press, a digital place where he could record terms and expressions that are absent from, or are poorly covered in, mainstream dictionaries.
So, he created a site he called Double-Tongued Word Wrester, a name he took from a citation under the entry for word in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Since then, the Oxford English Dictionary has also added Grant’s print dictionary, the Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, which was based on the Double-Tongued Dictionary site, as a citation for word-wrester, right next to his original source for the term.
Double-Tongued Word Wrester was a terrible website name — not least because everyone kept spelling it wrestler ‘one who grapples with sweaty, grunting man-animals’ instead of wrester ‘one who takes with force’ — so he later changed it to Double-Tongued Dictionary.
In 2005, it won the Laurence Urdang-Dictionary Society of North America Award, given to support research on collecting new words on the Web. Larry Urdang (who has since passed) was a distinguished lexicographer with a long career and many well-known lexical books to his name.
Over the years, Grant had a lot of help from others, including Sarah Hilliard (who is now his wife), Paul Deppler, James Martin, Tyson Burghardt, James Callan, Dianne Stevens, Adam Shuck, Matthew Hefferin, and Nicole Fortuna. Many thanks to them and to all the folks who emailed and commented over the years.
As it’s still pertinent and useful, below is the last “About” page from the Double-Tongued Dictionary, authored from 2004-2012 by Grant.
About the Dictionary
Since it was first started in the spring of 1999, my old home web site, World New York, saw many changes, although in general it adopted the usual formula: it recommended interesting things on the Internet to visitors in a chronological fashion. Usually, it was a quote or extract that could stand alone, something pithy or revealing, which could be linked to the larger article.
World New York was not a ground-breaking web log in this regard, but it was there earlier than most. The amount of email I received over the years from an appreciative audience let me know I was doing something right. The number of people who wrote and said things like, “I like your site so much, I’m going to rip it off” was also flattering; many of those imitative sites are still around, looking and reading better than World New York ever did. Good luck to them.
Finding interesting quotes in otherwise interesting articles was sometimes impossible. A well-written piece might be too tight for me to find just a few representative lines. Or, while a subject might be interesting, the writing might be dry and unquotable.
So a few years ago I began searching for smaller elements to extract and found that by picking out an unusual word or a significant number, I could offer yet another entry point to the larger article. It didn’t have to be a quote.
The sidebar for World New York became kind of a blog-within-a-blog, with short snips of “found” words and numbers and their definitions or explanations. Readers said they liked it.
This is, too, was nothing very novel. The idea of focusing on interesting numbers (totals, percentages, proportions, rankings, whatever) I borrowed from French newspapers, which often have a box devoted to chiffres.
As for words, sites like Word Spy, and to a lesser extent Word Detective and World Wide Words, have been doing something similar for years. The “Among the New Words” column in the professional journal American Speech has been finding new words for at least fifty years. William Safire has been doing it in his weekly language columns for more than twenty, as has David Barnhart (of the famous Barnhart dictionary-making family) with his Barnhart Dictionary Companion.
I think there’s room for one more participant, so I’ve expanded that sidebar to this full site, and have abandoned the rest of World New York altogether.
My first goal here, as always, is to inform and entertain. After that, I hope to cover carefully the lending and borrowing between English and other languages, to include as many words as time allows (because I do find more candidate words than I have time to investigate), to focus on non-standard English, to actively seek slang and jargon, and to work hard to pull from all kinds of sources, not just professionally edited texts.
What Is A Word? Below I use word to include term or phrase. This is consistent with an academic definition of word, which might be explained as “a self-contained part of language, made of one or more morphemes, recognized by its speakers to represent a single idea or unit, several of which together can form a sentence.” A word is not necessarily a string of characters uninterrupted by a space.
Purpose: While this site will offer more words of American origin or usage—due to the American-centric nature of the source materials I use—it is not my intention to prefer one English over another. All Englishes are, to the best of my ability, represented here.
Concerning “New” Words: I do not claim all the words included here are new, although some are.
There is a great fascination with “brand new” words, but it is time-consuming and logistically difficult to find new words immediately after their birth. They are hidden at first, and usually propagate slowly. There are many. Most die young. Even if they could all be trapped, skinned, and mounted, the end result would be uninteresting, since most new words are scientific and technical and about as fun as sandpaper.
We could fill this entire web site with new words that will never be heard from again. However, it’s more interesting for me and you if I log words which show at least some sort of acceptance before their status as “new” words is recognized.
Of course, I will do my best to recognize the surviving new words as early as possible, to trace them at least a little way towards their origins, and to keep the scientific and technical jargon to a few entries a week.
Choosing Words: A word is first considered for inclusion because it is interesting or new to me. “Interesting,” I know, is a matter of opinion.
After that, words continue to be considered if they have citational support, meaning a word and its definition can be shown to exist in word-based media over a non-trivial period. This requires lots of reading and searching.
“Non-trivial” is variable, depending upon the word, the niche from which it derives, and the types of sources it is found in. See Citations below.
In some cases, I have included a word with a single citation because the source seems reputable, the information likely, and/or the word compelling. That is strictly an editorial judgment, so I could, of course, be wrong.
I will occasionally record nonce words, those that are coined to serve an instant purpose with little likelihood of further survival or use. Some nonce words are included here because the coiner is well-known or of high-repute; because they are indicative of current events and may, as a result, be poised to have a longer shelf-life than might ordinarily be warranted (meaning, I am gambling that they will survive); or because, in my opinion, they are more clever, creative, or revelatory than is usual.
Some words included here have “encyclopedic entries.” They are not so much stand-alone terms which require definition as ideas which require explanation. Bull-tailing is an example of this. Encyclopedic entries are sometimes outside the scope of a strict dictionary, but I think they are in accord with the overall tone of this site.
Sometimes I include a word just because I like its sound, its ring, its rhythm, its context, the way it jabs out of a sentence, its layered meanings, its chutzpah.
I intend to err on the side of inclusion, which is why the citation database which is hidden behind this site includes many citations for words which have not appeared, and may never appear, as fully defined entries. I will keep those citations indefinitely, with hope that I can later substantiate the words found in them.
Words which are most likely to be excluded from this site are everyday words; stunt words which appear to be coined merely to demonstrate how clever the coiner is; words coined with the intention of making the coiner famous or rich; words which are spread by an organized, conscious campaign, including words coined for propaganda, marketing, or publicity purposes; words which at first glance have broad citational support but turn out to be instances of the same person using the word in all or most cases; catch phrases, clichés, sayings, aphorisms, proverbs, or slogans; words invented solely to malign, demean, derogate, deride, especially when used by a small body of hardcore partisans spouting cult-like rhetoric against another group or individual with which they have traditionally been enemies or in competition. These latter words are usually already excluded because they are part of an organized, conscious campaign.
I will include pejorative, obscene, and offensive words which do not fit the exclusion criteria above. They are language. That’s how people speak. I find their use interesting, particularly where the word is adopted by the group it is meant to offend, or where what passes as an insult in some groups (son of a bitch, cabrón) is used as a greeting among friends.
I should clarify for those of you who are considering submitting a word for inclusion: you cannot get rich by coining a word. You cannot invent a word, copyright it (and you certainly cannot patent it), and get paid every time someone uses it. That’s not how it works. If you are hellbent on trying this, I recommend you consult a good copyright lawyer who will set you straight in about thirty seconds. If you still want to submit, use the address above.
Finding Words: To find new words, I spend a lot of time reading. Educated writers often flag words new to their vocabularies by putting them in “scare” quotes, defining them in the text, introducing them with certain standard phrases, or otherwise showing that the words are not a part of their standard lexicons. I can then search for those flags, which will prequalify a text as more likely to contain the sorts of words I want to record here.
Definitions: All definitions should be considered drafts. Definitions are adjusted regularly: when new citations containing new evidence are found, or when I realize I have made a mistake—usually by being too vague or too specific.
I sometimes check established works to see, first, if the word is there; second, if it is there, how it is defined; and third, if it is there, whether there is good reason to include it here. When I do check other dictionaries, I most often consult the dictionaries indexed at OneLook.com, the Oxford English Dictionary, WordNet, the New Oxford American Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), the Dictionary of American Regional English, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, and Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.
Citations: For this site, I’ve chosen a historical dictionary model, like that used by the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In a historical dictionary (yes, I’m American, and I believe a historical to be good American English; my aitch is very solid) an entry is supported by citations of the headword in context over time, which can add nuance to the meaning, show the changing senses of the word, and give clues to the environments in which it appears or has appeared.
I have made only a brief effort to find the earliest citations.
Except for words which are indeed new or are out of the scope of the works listed above, if a word has any kind of history at all, chances are good that the OED, DARE, or HDAS will show earlier uses, or that a word researcher can find antedatings for the words I include here. I have only cited each word enough to show an approximate range of its meaning and existence.
There are two reasons I have not tried to find the ultimate earliest citation for each word.
First, it’s too time-consuming. If I try to find the earliest citation, it can take twice as long to hit all the various resources for each word, not counting when it is necessary to visit the library. Even then, there is always one more book, one more archive, one more database to check. The time investment is too high.
Second, the importance of earliest citations is over-rated for most words. It is of value only if one is able to significantly change the understanding of a word’s history or origins, which does not occur with most antedatings. While it is interesting to find that political football dates about 100 years earlier than I expected, it does not change the meaning of the word either then or today.
Of course, you can’t know if you will turn up a valuable antedating until you’ve done the work, so I refer you to my first point.
It should not be assumed that a gap in citations represents a gap in usage, but that the word was continuously used from at least as early as the first citation, through at least as late as the last one. However, it is not uncommon for a word to remain little-used for years or decades and then to spring to the fore. Chad, from the American presidential election of 2000, is a good example of this.
In some cases, a definition or sense is given which is not supported by the citations shown. This can be because I used non-public resources to develop the definition, resources which cannot be quoted due to ownership or copyright restrictions. It can also be because I have found but not entered other citations that were difficult to document properly, or because I simply did not have enough time. I will try to keep this sort of behavior to a minimum, and, when possible, to go back and get other citations to support all nuances.
Sometimes I include citations which are not exactly appropriate for the word as I have defined it. In these cases, the entire cite is contained within brackets, [ ]. Such citations are included either because I know they are related to the definition given, or because my editorial spidey-sense suggests they are related even though there is no evidence to prove it.
Citations are pulled from a variety of word-based media: periodicals, news wires, blogs, academic papers and journals, online bulletin boards, Usenet, my personal email, books, television, movies, the wide-open Internet, radio and chat transcripts, billboards, flyers, ephemera, and anything else I find.
I prefer sources which have full bibliographic information. There are many web sites with great material that is undated, and others that have long, beautiful prose but nary an author name to be found. While I may review such sources when looking for candidate words and when developing definitions, I only cite them when absolutely necessary.
When I do use difficult-to-document citations, I flag the data. Authors of which I am not certain are included in brackets ; dates of which I am of uncertain are prefixed by an asterisk (*). If anything else about a citation is questionable, I probably will not include that citation.
Citations are lightly edited. Punctuation is usually Americanized, but spelling is not. Double hyphens are converted to em-dashes. Spaces around em-dashes are removed. Ellipses, em-dashes, quotes, and apostrophes are converted to XHTML entities. For space and appearance reasons, email- or Usenet-style quoting of previous messages is usually silently removed and converted to standard double-curved quotes, as it would appear in a dialogue, leaving the words themselves intact. Double spaces after punctuation are made single. Line and paragraph breaks are not respected. Text is often elided or redacted in order to properly document a word without a lot of unnecessary text. Such cut text is replaced with an ellipsis. Headlines which appear in all capital letters are converted to initial caps; words in all-caps which appear in quotes are made lower-case or initial-capped, as necessary.
Obvious typographical or spelling errors are corrected when found in the bibliographic information of supposedly professional texts, but usually not if found in the quote itself, not when part of an eye-dialect or other form of intentional misspelling, not when a casual or personal communication (such as a blog entry, letter, or email message), and not when there is uncertainty about what the correct text should be. Errors which are due to bad optical character recognition or other transcription methods are corrected in bibliographic information, but not in quotes. Some spelling errors in quotes are corrected with bracketed text, as in the 1880 cite for bull tailing. These corrections contribute to a better overall readability, while not diminishing the ability to refind the original cite source, if it is so desired.