According to the Associated Press, Merriam-Webster recently decided 100 new words were worthy of inclusion in the latest edition of its Collegiate Dictionary. Why so few?

Among the words are pescatarian (a fish-eating vegetarian), infinity pool (an outdoor pool with an edge disappearing into the horizon), dirty bomb, and netroots.

I love these particular words and some of the others cited in the article, but overall the collection seems arbitrary – why these and only these? The explanation included in the article (which I won’t quote since this is an AP story) relies on subjectivity, which is understandable but begs the question of whose experience and resulting subjectivity constitute sufficient authority.

Ah, the pros at Merriam-Webster.

Which brings up the role of dictionaries and to what extent we should be relying on them. If I want to use a common word that hasn’t yet made it into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a word such as, uh, conjobulated, am I wrong? Should English teachers redline such usage if my readers understand it?

Since dictionaries often disagree – will the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford American Dictionary include the same 100 words? – it’s important not to think of any one dictionary as the arbiter of the words you can use. (And of course there are those who think we shouldn’t be adding any new words or new uses of existing words, but I dismiss these folks as eccentric and unimaginative and relegate them to a parenthetical.)

A useful dictionary evolves over time to reflect how we actually use words – though long publishing cycles mean they live most of their lives out of date. And their real value is not in dictating what words we can use, but as a resource for understanding words we encounter but don’t recognize. That is, they can help us understand what we are reading or listening to, and they can help us build a larger working vocabulary.

Writers, however, need to focus on their readers and the words their readers use and understand. Think about it. What’s more important, being right according to some arbitrary standard or communicating effectively? Both you say? Then which dictionary (or grammar book or language watcher) do you believe?

Instead, be an aggressive reader and listener. If you demand that what you encounter makes sense, then you will refine your understanding of how words – old and new – are used, and you can refer to dictionaries as needed. For words not in your dictionary, search them out on the Internet and try sites like Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary and Urban Word of the Day

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending that you use any word any way you want. Remember Humpty Dumpty. But feel free to enjoy the full richness of our constantly changing language, as long as you take your readers or listeners into account, so you are communicating clearly and effectively whatever your purpose may be.

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One of the great things about English is the room for new words that do what no existing word can do: artsy, carjacking, detox, email, and so on. When I read Maggie Jackson’s comments about the erosion of attention on Marci Alboher’s blog, I knew it was time to introduce a neologism that I’d like to see quickly become standard English. Conjobulation is the state of having so many projects to do and so many errands to run and so many familial pressures to manage and so many interruptions to recover from that sober individuals can be sitting at a stoplight and suddenly have no idea where they are supposed to be going, that they can be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly have no idea what they are talking about, that they can wake in the middle of the night in a panic but have no idea which problem woke them up.

I’d certainly been conjobulated plenty of times, but was stuck with such mundane and limited descriptions as too busy, stressed, harried, swamped and overwhelmed. Words like inundated, drowning, and snowed under were stretches at best and did not have the right feel. Confounded, crazed, and bewildered are great words, but they don’t communicate the external nature of the pressure.

Then one day a couple of years ago, my wife was driving and discussing a number of “issues” and forgot where she was going. A native Spanish speaker who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, she blurted out that she was conjobulated, and I knew she’d hit upon the perfect word. We have used it successfully ever since – successful in that when one of us says we are conjobulated the other knows precisely what is meant. It certainly captures the erosion of attention and focus that plagues our lives today.

A search on Google has revealed that a couple of others have hit upon this word: here, here, and one I won’t link to, but they don’t seem to have recognized the value of their find. I have added conjobulation to my MS Word dictionary. I suggest you do the same, and I hope you’ll begin using it whenever you get the chance. I’m sure if you use it, even internationally, it will almost always be immediately understood. As soon as I submit this blog post, I’m going to submit conjobulated to the Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary. I hope that some of my favorite language bloggers, such as Dan Santow, John McIntyre, and Language Log, will weigh in on its merit. And any help you can provide – by using it in writing and blogging about it – is appreciated.

By encouraging the adoption of conjobulation, we may actually spur research into how to combat it.

I only hope I’m not too conjobulated to finish this project.