I have a piece on Fresh Air today, behind the curve as usual, on the discussion that followed the Oxford Dictionary Online's inclusion of twerk, which Ben Zimmer covered in a post a couple of weeks ago ("Getting worked up over 'twerk'"). Actually I don't care much about twerk, whose coolness and credentials Ben defended definitively. But I think it's worth looking at the whole list of new words that appeared on the ODO blog post announcing the quarterly update, headed "Buzzworthy words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online – squee!":
apols, A/W (“autumn/winter”), babymoon, balayage (“a technique for highlighting hair”), bitcoin, blondie (small cake), buzzworthy, BYOD (“bring your own device”), cake pop, chandelier earring, child’s pose (yoga), click and collect, dad dancing, dappy, derp, digital detox, double denim, emoji, fauxhawk, FIL (“father-in-law”), flatform (shoe), FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”), food baby (“a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food”), geek chic, girl crush, grats, guac, hackerspace, Internet of things, jorts, LDR, me time, michelada (“drink made with beer, lime juice…”), MOOC, Nordic noir, omnishambles, pear cider[see comment below], phablet, pixie cut, prep (v. “prepare”), selfie, space tourism, squee, srsly, street food, TL;DR, trolly dash (UK supermarket promotion), twerk, unlike (v.), vom (“vomit”)
I’ve bolded the ones that seem to me to have a chance of being still current by the end of the decade, including a few that have been around for quite a while. Some of this is pure guesswork (if you have inside knowledge about bitcoin, let me know) and others may scrape by, but it's a fair bet that the vast majority are not going to survive your hamster.
Yet the list is striking not just for its ephemerality but for its faddishness. Given that these were selected from among hundreds of new words (going by the ODO's estimate of 1000 new words a year), most of which are solid contributions to the language, it’s hard to believe the editors weren’t ever so slightly trolling for yawps. As I put it:
Of course this is not your grandfather’s English language, that stream of the Great Tradition with rows of folio dictionaries protecting its banks. As people are always saying, the language is a living, growing thing. But then, so is Houston. It’s all good, I agree. But looking over the new word lists, I can’t help thinking, “Is that it? Srsly?” A language is just the things we want to say, and if you took those lists as representative, you’d conclude there’s never been an age whose conversation was as crass and trifling as ours is.
Should the words all have been included? For sure—and kept in, even after they’ve vanished from view. (Oxford makes a point of noting that the ODO is not the OED, from which words can never be removed. But why take anything out of the ODO, either? It’s not as if they need the disk space. Why remove twerk, even when it has passed on the to the land of forgotten dance styles? I mean, they’ve still got turkey trot.)
Of course all dictionaries emphasize items like these in their new word press releases, which is understandable. They’re after buzz, and these are the words that make for the most arresting headlines— “It’s official! Oxford declares ‘selfie’ a real word!” And while lexicographers disavow any official role, they know perfectly well that the only reason the announcements get picked up is that people still believe that a dictionary’s inclusion of a word confers legitimacy on it. As Oxford’s Jesse Sheidlower said, making a point that’s notable only for the infrequency with which modern lexicographers are willing to acknowledge it, “You look something up in a dictionary to get some indication that the word is approved.”
Lexicographers like to suggest that their decisions about inclusion are made on the basis of objective criteria—“independent evidence from a range of sources to be confident that they have widespread currency in English,” as Angus Stevenson of ODO puts it. But we all know that there is no quantitative measure of “currency” that tells us when to count a word as being part of a language that “shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere,” as someone said.
But what’s significant here isn’t the totality of new words included but the selection of the ones to be showcased. And while PR obviously played a role here—and what's wrong with that?—both the size and pervasive ephemerality of Oxford’s new list suggest that it’s a genuine reflection of the editors’ picture of the forces that are most important and influential in shaping the language today. In part, no doubt, this reflects the editors’ own preoccupations; these are the items that generate the most buzz when they get home from work, too. But I think it’s also an artifact of the illusion of totality that the Internet encourages. As I put it in the piece, "For the word nerds who write dictionaries, it's a new dawn, and bliss to be online. The Internet seems to put the whole of the language at your fingertips, effacing all the old boundaries in the process."
The problem isn't with the language itself, though, but the window we're seeing it through. In its very abundance, the Internet turns out to be as selective a filter as the old dictionaries ever were. It foregrounds the stunt words cooked up by the media, the marketers and the techies, the portmanteau blends like "jeggings," "appletini" and "splog." It amplifies the language of the very young — partly because they're more inventive, but also because they dominate the online conversation, and because everybody wants know what they saying at the cool kids' table.
At the same time, the Internet gives short shrift to the language of whole populations who don't happen to transact their conversations on Reddit or Tumblr. And the fascination with novel words tends to eclipse the subtle changes in the meanings of old ones, which are often more consequential.
That's where you find the most striking omissions in dictionaries. The OED still doesn't have an entry for the modern meaning of "demonize," as in "they demonized the bankers," and it still defines a "couple" as "a man and woman united by love or marriage."
And no dictionary I know of gives a definition for "slur" as in "racial slur," to refer to a word that disparages somebody on the basis of traits such as race, ethnicity, or gender. That new use of "slur" goes back half a century. But it doesn't jump out at you the way novelties like "squadoosh" and "twerk" do.
What we get from the Internet isn't a Google Earth view of the entire language. It's more like a screenshot of its Twitter feed.
Now you could argue that the last bit here is somewhat unfair. The ODO and the OED are different things, and the process of updating the latter—collecting and adding citations, redefining and reorganizing senses, among other things—is a Herculean task that has been under way for a long time. Still, words like couple and demonize figure at the heart of our cultural conversation, and ought to be prime candidates for “out-of-sequence” definition (the problem with couple has been out there for a least a decade). And different divisions or no, it’s striking that Oxford dictionaries offer defintions of selfie and jorts but are still telling readers that a couple (in the relevant sense) has to consist of a man and woman. Live by the brand….
The universal absence of a modern definition for slur is even more telling. The OED’s definition was last revised in 1915 and gives as the closest sense “an expression or suggestion of disparagement or reproof.” But other dictionaries compiled much later than that also miss the use of the word for an offensive or insulting word referencing someone's race, gender etc. (the sense that figures in “he was fired for using a vile racial slur beginning with n”). The American Heritage defines it simply as “A disparaging remark; an aspersion” (though I’m assured that a new definition is in the works). Merriam’s gives “an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo.” Needless to say, words like wop and fag are not aspersions, remarks, or innuendos, and slurs are specifically words that involve certain social categories. The new sense of slur first appeared in the African American press in the 1940s and was common in the mainstream media by the 1960’s—by now, this is the primary sense of the noun and even the only one that many people are familiar with. As linguistic changes go, it’s a lot more culturally significant than than the appearance of any of the new words on Oxford’s list, or of most of the new words cited in recent updates by other dictionaries. (In fact English never had a single word for this concept before.) How could every major dictionary have overlooked it for more than half a century? It may be that the answer is independent of dictionaries’ focus on linguistic novelties, but I doubt it. (There are plenty of other examples one could offer—slur isn't a special case.) Scouring the Internet is all well and good…