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How do words get into the dictionary?

Usage and abusage, defriending and impacting…

“It’s a bit of a what?” said my friend to me. 

“Schlep,” I repeated. And repeating myself and explaining the word gave me a chance to say it over and over.

There’s something about schlep I find hugely appealing. It’s the sort of word you can roll around in your mouth and really sink your teeth into.

And because it’s not much used in the UK, it often provokes a quizzical eyebrow. It comes from German via Yiddish, and I picked it up when I lived in South Africa, where it’s in common use.

As a verb with an object, it means to carry something heavy (I schlepped my shopping to the car). Objectless or as a noun, it refers to a difficult journey (It’s a schlep to get to Gatwick – which is what I said to my friend).

The very next day, I had an IM ping-pong with a client about whether impact could be used as a verb – which is what I’d done in some copy.

Now I’m the first to admit that I’m a Grammar Nazi, but sooner or later, you have to accept that a usage has become the norm and you’re better off not fighting it anymore. So I don’t. But my client is keeping up the struggle just a bit longer, so in the end we plumped for affect.

Schlep and impact were very much on my mind as I recently watched a talk by Anne Curzan, who’s professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She’s a language historian who’s been on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel for over a decade, and host of a radio show called That’s What They Say.

Curzan talks about the people behind dictionaries, and the never‑ending tussle between definition and usage. 

If you’ve ever perused a document, you might be surprised to learn the primary definition of the word. And if you’ve never been hangry or called somebody adorkable, you’ll add two more words to your vocabulary.

And maybe you’ll think twice the next time you use decimate.

What makes a word “real”? is entertaining and enlightening, with some unexpected discoveries. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on TED.com]