20 April 2011

Thinking About New Words

And now for a word from the real* OED — the Oxford English Dictionary, that grand old arbiter, the last court of instance, the very Supreme Court of what passes for correctness when it comes to English words.

Actually, I should have started out by saying “and now for some new words from the real OED”. Every new edition of a dictionary adds words — neologisms and colloquialisms that have gained enough currency among speakers of the language to force lexicographers to take official notice of them.

So every new edition sees language nerds and pundits make big noise about these newly minted official words. Such revisionism raises the hackles of some linguistic conservatives. To be honest, I can empathize with their conservatism. But it also helps validate the idea that a language grows, simplifies, and changes to reflect the living reality of the only truly important constituency: the folks who use it.

With that, an excerpt from a more or less giddy New York Times opinion piece from 5 April celebrating that OMG and LOL have made the OED:

It’s wonderful to experience the ongoing corruption and evolution of the English language. Last month, OMG and LOL were inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, along with the heart symbol — the first time a meaning enters our most exalted linguistic inventory via the T-shirt and bumper sticker.
They follow in the steps of other representatives of our electronic age. Google is there. So are dotcom and wiki. Chances are the meaning of tweet will soon spill out of its ornithological domain. The additions bring to mind the words of William Safire, The Times’ former master wordsmith, who climbed down from the conservative ramparts in the culture wars 25 years ago to accept that “words come to mean what most people think they mean, not what we say they ought to mean.”

Chalk another one up for language-as-reflection-of-its-speakers. But by no means do I think its speakers ought to just spold, mindle, or futilate their language. There are more or less accepted ways of using it at any time. The conventions du moment are not meaningless, even if sometimes arbitrary (why not start a sentence with but?). The rules reflect a shared view of the best ways at the moment to convey meaning through language, to the largest audience possible.

I remember in grade school looking up the word ain’t in response to those adults who were trying to tell me it wasn’t a word in the acceptable sense. I knew that if it was in the dictionary, I had the weight of justice on my side, so I slept securely, keeping my moral superiority a comforting secret. Only later did I realize that conventions had their use. Ain’t may indeed be a word, but it ain’t for all occasions or audiences. Now I deliberately attempt to follow the conventions, because they (generally) produce sentences that sound best in my ear. If I knowingly deviate, it’s mostly to follow Orwell’s dicta not to say anything avoidably ugly or outright barbarous.

Anyway, while part of my heart is with the linguistic conservatives because of my own joy at spinning words into meaning, another part is with the pragmatists who recognize (and celebrate) that any given edition of a dictionary is, at best, a snapshot of the culture. If such a venerable word maven like William Safire and such an august word treasury like the OED can do it, I sure can.


* I don’t know how many times the blogging gods dictate I’m supposed keep disclaiming my personal shorthand for the Online Etymology Dictionary. But if it’s seven times seventy I’ve got some more disclaiming to do: I call that one “my OED” to distinguish it from the OED.

1 comment:

  1. It's true that phonology and grammar may in some ways become simpler, but I think the lexicon gets more complex precisely because it IS a reflection of the increasing complexity of life (including contact with other languages). As evidence, the number of words in the English language today is many, many times larger than 100, 200, 300, 1000 years ago.