Meet Pat

Video (Meet Pat) -

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Quilling & Quiller in the Dictionary

I was recently talking to one of my vendors and telling him about the upcoming North American Quilling Guild conference (NAQGCON) conference which is coming up May1-3, in Tampa, FL (For more information about the NAQGCON check out the web site or the NAQGCON Blog which I posted on January 9th. ) I was talking about sending press releases about the NAQGCON and how we always suggest that the host print at the top of the press release “this is QUILLING not QUILTING” and “Please do not use spell check”. I told him about the time I was giving a quilling class for some organization and I had a woman come in and ask “Where are the quilts?” Apparently one of the newspapers had written that I was giving a “quilting” class. Fortunately, she was a good sport and sat down and learned how to QUILL! At any rate, Andy, said to me “I think it would be a really good idea for the quilling guild to work on getting quilling put into the dictionary.” So . . . I mentioned it on the NAQG Yahoo quilling group and everyone who commented seemed to think it was a good idea. Several commented that “quill” is already in the dictionary, but in reference to a feather, a pen, or porcupine or hedgehog “quills”. (I have seen the term “quilling” used to describe the shedding process of hedgehogs.) I contacted Merriam Webster and explained what quilling was and told them there were thousands of us out here . . . and if they just “Googled” the word quilling; they would see that it is already in use and has been for some time.

They sent me an email explaining how a word gets into the dictionary which I have printed it below. I think my next step will be to send them a copy of the NAQG’s bibliography. This was compiled by Donna DelGiudice. In it she has listed every quilling book, article, kit etc. (It is available to NAQG members on the NAQG web site in case anyone is interested.) I guess after that, I’ll wait for a response to determine the next step. If any of you have thoughts on the subject, I would love to hear from you. You can email me directly at or leave a comment here on the blog. I guess if we are successful the next step is to get “quilling” and “quillers” included in the Microsoft spell check dictionary. Anyone know anybody at Microsoft?

How does a word get into a Merriam-Webster dictionary? This is one of the questions Merriam-Webster editors are most often asked. The answer is simple: usage.

Tracking word usage

To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it's used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.

Each day most Merriam-Webster editors devote an hour or two to reading a cross section of published material, including books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications; in our office this activity is called "reading and marking." The editors scour the texts in search of new words, new usages of existing words, variant spellings, and inflected forms—in short, anything that might help in deciding if a word belongs in the dictionary, understanding what it means, and determining typical usage. Any word of interest is marked, along with surrounding context that offers insight into its form and use.


The marked passages are then input into a computer system and stored both in machine-readable form and on 3" x 5" slips of paper to create citations.

Each citation has the following elements:

1. the word itself
2. an example of the word used in context
3. bibliographic information about the source from which the word and example were taken

Merriam-Webster's citation files, which were begun in the 1880s, now contain 15.7 million examples of words used in context and cover all aspects of the English vocabulary. Citations are also available to editors in a searchable text database (linguists call it a corpus) that includes more than 70 million words drawn from a great variety of sources.

From citation to entry

How does a word make the jump from the citation file to the dictionary?

The process begins with dictionary editors reviewing groups of citations. Definers start by looking at citations covering a relatively small segment of the alphabet — for example gri- to gro- — along with the entries from the dictionary being reedited that are included within that alphabetical section. It is the definer's job to determine which existing entries can remain essentially unchanged, which entries need to be revised, which entries can be dropped, and which new entries should be added. In each case, the definer decides on the best course of action by reading through the citations and using the evidence in them to adjust entries or create new ones.

Before a new word can be added to the dictionary, it must have enough citations to show that it is widely used. But having a lot of citations is not enough; in fact, a large number of citations might even make a word more difficult to define, because many citations show too little about the meaning of a word to be helpful. A word may be rejected for entry into a general dictionary if all of its citations come from a single source or if they are all from highly specialized publications that reflect the jargon of experts within a single field.

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

The number and range of citations needed to add a word to the dictionary varies. In rare cases, a word jumps onto the scene and is both instantly prevalent and likely to last, as was the case in the 1980s with AIDS. In such a situation, the editors determine that the word has become firmly established in a relatively short time and should be entered in the dictionary, even though its citations may not span the wide range of years exhibited by other words.

Size does matter

The size and type of dictionary also affects how many citations a word needs to gain admission. Because an abridged dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, has fairly limited space, only the most commonly used words can be entered; to get into that type of dictionary, a word must be supported by a significant number of citations. But a large unabridged dictionary, such as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, has room for many more words, so terms with fewer citations can still be included.

Authority without authoritarianism

Change and variation are as natural in language as they are in other areas of human life and Merriam-Webster reference works must reflect that fact. By relying on citational evidence, we hope to keep our publications grounded in the details of current usage so they can calmly and dispassionately offer information about modern English. That way, our references can speak with authority without being authoritarian.


dahelena said...

Pat, thanks so much for your detailed article on "Quilling & Quiller" in the Dictionary. I found it so informative and interesting. I hope that Merriam Webster will listen and will add our favorite art form so that as many as possible will find it. I tell people that quilling is all around you, and point out trellises, ads, clothing, cards and many, many other objects where it is displayed. Thanks for your long term efforts in promoting it!! Helen Pierce

Ann Martin said...

Pat, I dug around a bit and came across this article: It seems in order for a word to be considered for addition in Microsoft's database, it has to be added many times to custom dictionaries in either Word or Hotmail AND appear in a major dictionary. So you're on the right track with sending the bibliography to Merriam-Webster and the rest of us can help by adding quilling to our custom Word or Hotmail dictionaries. Here's how: to add a word marked as a misspelling to the dictionary, click the word, and then click Add to Dictionary. The word is not marked as misspelled again.