August 2, 2004 3:50 PM PDT

Webster's uploads MP3 to dictionary

"MP3" has no vowels, but it is a word--and now it's in the dictionary.

The music file format surged into widespread use in the late 1990s on the crest of the Napster revolution and continues to ride high with the success of Apple Computer's iPod music player. In Springfield, Mass., that quick shift from computer subculture to mainstream pop culture wasn't lost on the guardians of the language.

The newly updated Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary includes not only "MP3," but also "MPEG," the acronym from which MP3 files sprang, and several other tech-related words and phrases, including "digital subscriber line" and "information technology" itself.

But what's especially noteworthy about MP3 is the speed with which the word received its imprimatur. It can take 20 years or so for even the fastest of new words to enter the dictionary; "MP3," which first appeared in 1996, found its way into the dictionary in just eight years.

"It's striking how quickly words having to do with the Web establish themselves in the language," said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster. "So many of them were metaphors for life in the print world--clipboards, browsers, pages. The people who coined Web terminology were wise to have latched on to words that carried with it that metaphor and made easy for people to make it part of their lives."

There's no such metaphor at work with the two music acronyms, however. Their quick verbal success may have come more from consumers' desire to create their own personal digital music collections of songs from artists ranging from Britney Spears and Wilco to Madonna and late Internet converts Metallica.

By comparison, the other new high-tech entrants to the dictionary are slowpokes. Merriam-Webster gives 1984 as the year of the first recorded instance of "digital subscriber line"--or DSL, a communications technology by which some people gain access to their MP3 files--and 1978 for "information technology."

"Nanotech" also made a relatively quick entrance as a shortened noun form of "nanotechnology"--the manipulation of materials on an atomic scale. It was first recorded in 1991, but the longer form of the word was already in the earlier, 10th edition, with a first citation at 1987.

Other, nontech words newly admitted to the dictionary include "teensploitation" (the exploitation of teens by producers of teen-oriented films), "body wrap" (a body treatment involving the application of oils or gels by a wrapping of the body with a sheet) and "pleather" (a plastic fabric made to look like leather).

Merriam-Webster issues a new edition of the collegiate dictionary every 10 years. The current edition, the 11th, debuted last year. The new crop of words were part of the first annual update to that edition. So what's in store for next year?

"We're watching 'blog' very, very carefully," Morse said. "In this political season, it seems once and for all to have established itself as a part of the language."

 

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