New words

A reader objected to this headline in the Life, etc., section Thursday: A spoonful of yogurt helps the probiotics go down. The reader said that he couldn’t find the word “probiotics” in his dictionary and that we should not use such a non-word in our headlines or stories.

In fact, “probiotics” is not in the dictionary that we use, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, but I did find it in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. It is also listed in an online guide to the newest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.


A probiotic, Merriam-Webster’s says, is “a preparation (as a dietary supplement) containing live bacteria that is taken orally to restore beneficial bacteria to the body.” We also found the word in wide use in other publications. Here is a link to an academic discussion of probiotics. And here is a link to a PDF from the National Yogurt Association that explains probiotics.

As Debra Boyette, the Features copy desk chief, suggested when we copy editors discussed this reader’s objection, we could have included a more explicit definition in the story by health and fitness writer Joe Miller. But the story, through a quote, did allude to the derivation of “probiotic” as a back-formation of “antibiotic.” Indeed Merriam-Webster’s notes that connection. The M-W also dates the word to 1951, so this is not a new term. I also think the story made clear that certain yogurts contain bacteria that help our digestive tract move things along.

I see nothing wrong with our using “probiotics” in the headline or the story. We could have helped our readers with a full definition, but I don’t think we should avoid words that are in wide use, even if they aren’t in every dictionary. That’s how words get into dictionaries: They show up in publications and in ordinary speech and writing. Then the dictionary editors take note and put them in the dictionary.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.