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August 17, 2014 / ldejong4

Defending Side-boob, YOLO!

How do words get added to dictionaries?

We add them in.

Who me? You? Those fools over there?

Yes. How else do you think it happens? Do you think a wizard invents new words, sends them to his scribe and expects us to read the updated version every year? Do you think that’s how we started using the words binge-watch, yolo and side-boob? Sorry kids… the business of adding words to dictionaries is sexier than that.

I caught myself watching the end of the Vincent Browne show last week. I was just flicking. I promise. But I admit I stopped only because Vincent was away and replaced by another lady so I thought I’d give it a chance to see what they were chatting about. Much to my pleasant surprise, they were discussing the latest addition of new vocabulary to the English dictionary including the examples above. I’d read about it earlier that day and I was really intrigued to hear what they were saying about it.

They began by explaining what the new terms meant exactly but then they proceeded to dismiss the addition of these new words and said it was the dictionary’s marketing technique in order to sell new copies. I guess in a similar way to what academic authors of school and college books are accused of – adding just a few lines or pages for the sake of a new edition. I was so disappointed and irritated with this attitude towards a piece of news that really excited the geeky linguist inside me.

I understand why they made this point. They are people who have either never heard of these terms or else they don’t like them and don’t use them. They shun the terms because they associate them with the youth and perhaps shorthand communication on social media. They are not comfortable with them. It is normal for people to have an emotional tie with words like preferring words to others, or being insulted by the use of them because that is the magical purpose of words. They carry meaning. So in a way, I am glad they had a negative reaction to these terms. That shows exactly what register the words belong to – not to the political drips of the Vincent Browne show.

But that is not to dismiss new terms. Not all words belong to a register but many do and just because some are considered slang or ‘of the streets’ does not mean they are not words. Once people use them, they have a legitimate life. And that is how new words are added to the dictionary – the English one at least. There are sociolinguists and dictionary writers studying society to look out for which words are emerging and being used the most. Then based on those statistics, created by us, the words are added and the dictionary becomes a mirror. And that is the beauty of language. We are all artists working together to create new terms and expressions. Not all of them will live and so they might be removed from dictionaries but languages change all the time because society is changing. New concepts are born and the most popular of those must be given a word because language is our tool to communicate those concepts. How do these politicians think we made it all the way from Old English? I challenge you to understand that language!

Shakespearian English is known as Early Modern English and he invented a considerable amount of words, many of which we still use today. Literature does wonders to language. But now, social media and technology in general is the Shakespeare of English so we must accept that it is evolving rapidly.

It is ok to dislike words or avoid others but it’s not ok to reject the addition of new words that are being used in society. The dictionary is not there to tell us what words to use or standardise language, it goes the opposite way rather. So if it’s a complaint about marketing you have or wasted money then go bother other industries like the food industry, the pharmaceutical industry or the political industry but don’t dare point the finger at mine, the word industry.

 

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