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February 12, 2020

As social media has eaten the world, novel words and phrases have started to spread at hyperloop speed. It used to take years for neologisms to filter from place to place, through vessels like letters. Now they can bubble up from subcultures and flood the zeitgeist in a period of weeks, leaving confusion and FOMO in their wake.

Dictionaries have traditionally been much slower moving, waiting years before writing about a new word so that its meaning has time to settle and it can prove to be a lasting addition to the language. But that is changing.

The latest example comes from Dictionary.com, which recently reorganized its site to include several silos beyond its “core” dictionary, places where its linguistic experts will rapidly respond to the culture, attempting to explain phenomena that may be fleeting or evolving. Now within Dictionary.com, there’s a pop culture dictionary. There’s an emoji dictionary. And there is a slang dictionary, which on Wednesday is welcoming new terms like “OK boomer.”

That layered phrase exemplifies just how complex this endeavor is, a fact that is not lost on the team.

Dictionary.com has summed up “OK boomer” as “a viral internet slang phrase used, often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the Baby Boomer generation and older people more generally.” It’s a helpful explanation for someone who is trying to figure out what this whole “OK boomer” thing is about. It took painstaking research to produce. It is also inevitably incomplete.

There are whole think pieces dedicated to the nuances of the phrase, tussling with whether it operates as commentary on climate change or a retort to out-of-touch parents or an ageist slur or maybe all those things — and how that changed as it went from being cool to overused to cool again, in a meta way that involves early users being aware of its overuse and picking it up again in part to mock the popularity they predated. “It’s ironic and earnest and performative all at once,” says Senior Research Editor John Kelly.

He realizes there is a risk of coming off as dictionary-splaining when they’re trying to pin down trends that may exist to separate the minority who get it from the majority who don’t. But there is also a need the company is addressing in attempting to fill the gap between the crowdsourced chaff of Urban Dictionary and painstaking definitive-ness of the Oxford English Dictionary. “We want to make sure we’re capturing terms that are in the discourse right now,” he says. “You need to be a resource when people are curious.”

There is plenty of curiosity to go around at a time when the word “word” doesn’t even really sum up what people are doing with communication anymore. “Social media not only brings new terms to our attention but it generates a new kind of term,” Kelly says. There are hashtags. There are memes. There are internet challenges. There are “phrasal templates” and reaction comments like “big mood,” which is also among Dictionary.com’s new additions.

The team at Dictionary.com working on encapsulating all the moments, from “Megxit” to “self-partnered,” won’t be able to get to everything. They’re a group of about 10. But the effort is an indication of how traditionally trusted resources are continuing to work to meet the culture and users where they are. Many of the finite terms Kelly’s team decides to tackle are ones that the analytics team have highlighted as things people are attempting to look up anyway.

“It’s really kind of hard to untangle,” Kelly says, “but it’s fun to think about and we have the space to do it.”

Write to Katy Steinmetz at katy.steinmetz@time.com.

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