4 Things You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About the (Spanish) Dictionary

If a word is not in the dictionary, does that mean it isn’t a real word? This is one of the questions translators are most often asked, understandably enough, in the creative and irreverent world of marketing, where new terms are frequently coined and are just as easily forgotten once they have served their turn. So, how are dictionaries created anyway? How does the DRAE (the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy) decide which words to include or update?

How Do Words Get in the Dictionary?

As the lexicographer Erin McKean put it, dictionary-makers act more like fishermen, gathering words with a wide net, than policemen, keeping out “bad” words. The Spanish Academy thoroughly monitors the words people actually use and how they use them. Their reference is a huge stock of data from different databases, like the 21st Century Corpus of Spanish, which contains thousands of works, recorded from all different types of media across the entire Spanish-speaking world, and has a total of 300 million entries. When there is evidence of a new word being used without needing to be defined in a variety of different sources over a period of time, or a word that achieves great currency with a broad audience, it is canonized by inclusion.

What If a Word is Not in the Dictionary?

Most general Spanish dictionaries are designed to incorporate only those terms which are widely used over a certain space of time – there is specific criteria for measuring for this. Spanish is a living and vibrant language that is understood and spoken by over 440 million people in more than twenty countries. A complete catalog of Spanish vocabulary would be extremely impractical, as would be the inclusion of passing fads. Even when it comes to the words that are actually in the dictionary, their meaning often differs from the meaning that speakers give them through figures of speech such as metaphor and synecdoche. That’s the genius of language in action.

How Have the New Technologies Affected Dictionary-Making?

Thanks to computer technology, linguists have access to vast electronic databases of real Spanish, known as corpora, like the aforementioned 21st Century Corpus of Spanish, that allow them to study the evolution of the language in all parts of the Spanish-speaking world. The analysis of the databases enables lexicographers to follow the emergence of new words, to confirm the popularity of the old ones (or eventually put them into retirement) and to discover the transformations in all the different varieties of Spanish. The DRAE, as many other dictionaries today, is now being offered in electronic format and enhanced with new features, such as links to other works of reference or to linguistic consulting services online.

Which Spanish Dictionary to Use?

The DRAE is not the only academic dictionary. The RAE publishes the Panhispanic Dictionary of Doubts (Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, 2005) and the Dictionary of Americanisms (Diccionario de americanismos, 2010), apart from other works like the three volumes of the New Grammar of the Spanish Language (Nueva gramática de la lengua española, 2009-2011) and the 2010 edition of the Orthography of the Spanish Language (Ortografía de la lengua española). The most recommended general use dictionaries are the Manuel Seco and the María Moliner.