A “tallboy” — as a term used to describe oversize beer cans, not a chest of drawers — has been around since at least the mid-1950s, when the once-dominant Schlitz Brewing started selling 16-ouncers. More than 60 years later, the tallboy has finally earned its place in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a source that has been teaching people about the English language since 1847.
“Tallboy” was one of more than 530 new words and definitions added to the Merriam-Webster website, the online resource that’s accessed tens of millions of times each month.
“A long time coming, right?” says Emily Brewster, the all-too-appropriately named senior editor for Merriam-Webster.
The delayed recognition for “tallboy” among lexicographers is not unusual, Brewster says. The dictionary does not attempt to be a leading predictor of language, she adds, but more a reflection of words that have become “established members of the language.” Each word must satisfy a few basic criteria before it can be considered for inclusion in Merriam-Webster: There must be “substantial evidence” of the word in current use, with a generally set definition, and the word must be found in a variety of publications over an extended period of time, Brewster says.
The criteria, she emphasizes, are “as intentionally vague as they sound.”
So while the term “tallboy” has been part of the brewing and bar industries for decades, it has only recently started to appear in mainstream publications on a consistent basis, probably because craft breweries have embraced oversize cans as a way to compete with the global breweries that hog all the shelves in 7-Eleven coolers. (These days, the term “tallboy” can be applied to even bigger-format containers, including 19.2-ounce cans that hold roughly the same amount of suds as an imperial pint.)
About 20 staffers at Merriam-Webster are devoted to seeking out new or revised dictionary entries. Any one of those employees can propose a new word or phrase, such as “deep state” (“an alleged secret network of especially nonelected government officials and sometimes private entities … operating extralegally to influence and enact government policy”), or expand the definition of a current entry, such as “inclusive” (“allowing and accommodating people who have historically been excluded”). Their proposals will then be reviewed by other editors, who assess the merits of the words or definitions.
Stephen Perrault, director of defining at Merriam-Webster, makes the final call, Brewster says. “It’s a pretty long and involved process,” she adds. (Brewster, incidentally, can take credit for both “deep state” and “inclusive,” though editors tend to refrain from such self-aggrandizement.)
That long and involved process has added a number of other food and drink terms to the dictionary. They include “matcha” (“green powder made from ground green tea leaves that is used to make tea and other beverages”), “Halloumi” (“a white, brine-cured Cypriot cheese made usually from a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk”) and “chana” (the Hindi word for “chickpea”). These newbies are in addition to other recent entries — “bhut jolokia” (otherwise known as the “ghost pepper”), “dulce de leche” (“sweetened caramelized milk”), mofongo (“a Puerto Rican dish consisting of fried green plantains mashed with garlic, salt, and olive oil”) — that continue to expand the vocabulary around food in the United States.
“We’re in a golden age” of food and drink, Brewster says. “People are really expanding their food interests into unfamiliar territories.”
And the dictionary, she says, is merely reflecting those ever-widening interests.
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