Lots of people (and by "lots" I mean roughly 99% of everyone I've ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who's Who
of words. That it's like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good
words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow "realler" than the words that don't.
Well, that's not exactly true. It does take a bit of work to get a word into the dictionary, but inclusion in the dictionary is not an honor. The dictionary words are not more real than the words not in the dictionary. What they are is more USEFUL.
Think of the dictionary as less of a Social Register for words and more like a word general store. I am the manager of the word general store. Do I stock only words in my size? Only in the flavors I like? Only the words I wish people would use? No ? I provide a wide selection of words for the use of all my customers. And because my customers are such a wide group (basically, all adult readers and writers) I have to make sure to include the words that will serve their needs.
Because there's limited shelf space in the Word Store, we have to make hard decisions about what to stock. Those decisions are based mainly on usefulness, not on beauty or on any kind of perceived intrinsic merit. We want you to be able to walk in and grab what you need off the shelf (and since we don't have to worry about shoplifting, there's nothing kept behind the counter).
How do we judge a word's usefulness? Basically, we check to see if people are using it. It seems a bit more circular than it is, trust me. Some people have the idea that if a word isn't in the dictionary, they can't use it. This is not a rule any lexicographer ever came up with (think about it ? if this were true, we'd all be out of jobs right quick) and luckily not a rule that most people follow. If a word you want to use isn't in the dictionary (and you're sure you haven't just misspelled it ? hey, don't worry, it happens to everyone), go ahead and use it! That's the best way to get it in the next edition, and then everyone's happy.
Being in the dictionary, then, doesn't make a word "real." All words are real. Words are like dogs. Some dogs are pedigreed, some are not, but the unpedigreed dogs are dogs just the same ? they bark like dogs and run like dogs and rub their little doggy noses into your hand whether or not they have a piece of paper from the Kennel Club. It's the same with words. The right word in the right place can make you laugh, or cry, or think ? act like a "real word" whether it's been caught in alphabetical order between the covers of a thick reference book or not.
The lexicographer is quite a bit like the Great and Wonderful Oz. Think about it. The Scarecrow already had a brain; the Tin Man already had a heart; the Lion already had courage; all Oz did was make them aware of it. All the lexicographer does is point out the words that are already real.
So, if you want to get a word into the dictionary (now that I've just told you it's not the Word Medal of Honor), show me that people are using it. Lots of people, in lots of different places (not just online, not just in one narrow field of reference). Send me examples in context. Show me that it's important, that people need to know it to live their lives. Show me that it's a great tool, something nobody can read or write without. Then we'll add it to the stock of the store. (As always, you can send words to me at email@example.com.)