A dictionary can be a setter’s best friend or worst enemy. I rely heavily on dictionaries to get things right, but in the modern world, what’s acceptable and current is a bit of a moving target. The Chambers English Dictionary, the unofficial crossword setters’ and solvers’ bible, used to put out a new edition every five years or so, and crossword people could safely refer to a particular edition as the reference for their crossword. All serious solvers had a copy, and there was no argument as to definitons of words and terms, spelling and word inclusion. There was great fanfare when a new edition was released, with lists available of what had been added and taken away. While the frequency of printed publication remains roughly the same, what happens in-between adds complication to the cryptic crossword picture. Many dictionary publishers have online products that can change content regularly, as they no longer have to wait for the next publication to alter entries. It used to be possible for a word or term to come and go between paper publications, so it never actually made it into the dictionary even though it was considered everyday language for a reasonable length of time. Fad words. This sounds right to me, as “new” words should have to stand the test of time, but nowadays, in the online world, once it gets in, it’s not all that easy to get rid of. Words have a long life once they make a dictionary even if they aren’t popular any more. Labels like archaic or obsolete or poetic give an extended life to words that have long disappeared from conversation.
So, what’s a setter to do with “pop-up” words and terms found in online references but not in printed works? It’s always been a problem for me, and I’ve been caught out a number of times using a word or term that I believed to be generally well-known but, in fact, is quite regional. Google isn’t much help as just about every word, even misspelt ones, get many hits across the internet. When it comes down to it, although variety may be impacted by their exclusion, I rarely include words that haven’t made most of my printed references as answers in clues. I must be able to justify the words and terms I use and make sure everyone from 20 to 80+ years old has access to those words and definitions (the bulk of cryptic crossword solvers are 60+ and prefer hardcopy to online references). However, I will always reserve the right to stretch this restriction a little when it comes to wordplay, where current words, terms and concepts may be useful. Using Google-only words in both definition and wordplay is sure to alienate a large number of solvers.