What Goes into Creating a New Edition of a Dictionary? Shop Talk

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The editors of The University of Chicago SpanishEnglish Dictionary talk about their process creating the sixth edition of the decades-old dictionary, and how they decided what words make the cut (hint: this year's additions included Ponzi scheme, streaming video, and Heimlich maneuver).

What steps do you take to revise The University of Chicago SpanishEnglish Dictionary?

We actually set new goals for each edition as we look at ways to improve upon the previous work. For example, in the fifth edition we wanted users to be confident they were choosing the right word, so we decided to move away from an antiquated dictionary convention that simply lists equivalents for a common word without much distinction. We wanted users to be able to more accurately choose the word that is closest to their intended meaning. So, for example, if you’re looking up the Spanish equivalent for “thoughtful,” you may have the meaning “considerate” in mind, or you may want an equivalent for the meaning  “reflective.” In older editions, the entry read as follows: “thoughtful ADJ considerado, atento; bien pensado; pensativo, reflexive.” Now it reads, “thoughtful ADJ (considerate) considerado, atento; (well thought out) bien pensado; (reflective) pensativo, reflexivo.”

In the sixth edition, on the other hand, our main goal was to make sure that anyone looking up a specific word in the dictionary would be likely to find it. That meant adding frequently used words that weren’t already in the dictionary, a challenge when you’re trying to keep the dictionary at a manageable length. 

With such strict space constraints, how do you choose which words to add?

We have to think about which words readers will really be looking up. Traditionally the dictionary has referenced frequency lists, such as the Frequency Dictionary of Spanish Words by Juilland and Chang Rodriguez, but even then we still had to make difficult decisions on what words should and shouldn’t be included, such as all of the adverbs ending in –mente. Another problem is that this list did not include samples of spoken Spanish, which is clearly an important component for users. We have better frequency lists these days (see www.wordfrequency.info for an example), which helps, and we balance that with thinking about what are really the most important words and meanings for users. So, we may add more words than we can include at first, but we’ll also go back and take out words that have become rarely used due to age (e.g., “cattle rustling”) or becoming obsolete (e.g., “floppy disk”).

Do you make sure that every Spanish word also has its complement on the English side and vice versa?

Yes, as much as possible. We want to maintain symmetry, but new additions often require different changes on the two sides. For example, sometimes it may mean adding one new entry on one side while adapting two or more on the other:  adding “upload” affects just one entry in English, but we have to add to three Spanish entries: “cargar” and “subir” for the verb equivalents and “carga” for the noun.  Sometimes no new entries are required.  The compound “square brackets” went into the entry “square” on the English side, while on the Spanish side we added it as an additional meaning for the entry of “corchete,” which can also mean “hook and eye” or “brace.”

Along these lines, if we cut a word from the dictionary, we have to make sure it is cut from both the Spanish and English entries. This does help with length, though, knowing that if you cut a word, you’re actually often cutting two.

You used the example of “square brackets” and “upload.” Are most of the brand-new words technology and computer terms? 

We actually added terms in four major categories for the sixth edition: technology, medical terminology, business, and sports. These all represent rapidly changing areas that are adding new terms and creating new meanings for terms. Even those who may know a second language well will most likely need to look up these kinds of terms since they are closely tied to cultural and technological changes. So we have translations and new meanings now for words like “right-click,” “cookie,” and “open source software”; “fatty acids,” “electrocardiogram,” and “pinkeye”; “golden parachute,” “time-and-a-half pay,” and “brand awareness”; and “goalkeeper,” “dribble,” and “swing and a miss.”

The sixth edition of The University of Chicago SpanishEnglish Dictionary is available as a book and as an app.