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Today's Oxford English Dictionary word-of-the-day ("ice master") reminded me of a question that's been on my mind for some time:

What criteria do dictionary-makers use to decide whether a particular noun phrase is something that should have its own dictionary entry?

(Maybe "noun phrase" isn't quite the right term, but I think people will get the point.)

I'm not seeing an obvious pattern for which noun phrases have entries and which don't. I'm guessing it's somehow based on whether the meaning of the phrase is clear and unambiguous from its component words (in which case no entry is needed) but I don't really know.

In the case of the OED in particular, some entries have a section titled "Compounds". So, for example, the Compounds section for the entry for "bar" has "bar-snack" and "bar-stool". This raises yet another question: How do dictionaries decide when to use hyphens in cases like this? But I'm less interested in that question than the criteria for top-level entries.

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  • re: hyphenation of compounds in the OED oed.com/page/faqs/Frequently+asked+questions#hyphenate – Alex B. Feb 18 at 15:23
  • They have to make individual distinctions, aided perhaps by surveys of usage (though reliable ones are scarce on the ground). I.e, it's curated and not a matter of policy (there may be local attempts at policies in some cases, but the task is too gigantic to compartmentalize). – jlawler Feb 18 at 18:29
  • The Oxford is notorious for using the term 'compound' for items that are not actually compounds at all but syntactic constructions. In the case of "ice master" the two words would have to be joined to qualify as a single noun (i.e. a compound noun). If written as two separate words, it's an NP, i.e. syntactic construction consisting of modifier+head. – BillJ Feb 19 at 10:46

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