New Word Rants—Don’t Kill the Messenger

Oxford University Press periodically publishes new words, and they recently announced a small sampling from the list of 400 new words that appear in the now-available twelfth edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. These words will not appear in print for a while in OUP’s flagship American dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, as the 3rd edition was just released last fall (with the addition of about 2,000 new words and senses), but updates are available online. As I browse blogs, I encounter indignant rants from folks who just don’t get it.

I am proud to be part of the New Words Program. Each month, a group of readers submit 20 new words. Our job is to read, read, read—and though we are all assigned specific subjects, any new submissions are accepted. Sometimes we find older words that slipped through the cracks, sometimes new senses of old words emerge. OUP in no way inserts as actual entries all the submissions they receive—after the group submits them, the lexicographers further research them to determine the number of times they are used in everyday language.

So you’re mad that “sexting” went in. Lexicographers don’t create new words or make judgments on their suitability, unless they are considered too obscene. The lexicographer’s job is to record the language. If they don’t define new words, the dictionary becomes stagnant and unhelpful to a person needing a definition. Without new words, we’d still be speaking like we did hundreds of years ago. Many words become dated or archaic as new words dominate our culture. That’s progress.

If millions of idiots are sexting every day, it has to be in the dictionary. I’ve read angry posts calling for a stop to this—this is the downfall of English! They’re ruining our language! No, they’re not—our culture is. What they don’t realize is hundreds of new words are defined each year from the fields of technology, science, medicine, computers, government, cosmetics, mental diseases, weather catastrophes, fashion, architecture, culture, and a host of other subjects. Note that not long ago, even “blog” was a new word, and someone had to research it and make a decision whether to insert it as an entry. I wonder if the people who are now fuming about “retweet” were also mad about “blog” ten years ago.

Yes, some new words are a sad reflection of our times, but a dictionary has no need to apologize. If you don’t want to see sexting in the dictionary, then make it obsolete. If you don’t want to see jeggings, stop wearing them. If you can put an end to cyberbullying, then we won’t have to record it. If you don’t want to see social media terms in, then check your obsession with Facebook and Twitter. Because this is what people do, it must be documented. If these words bother you, there are still hundreds of thousands of other exquisite words in our beautiful language you can use to express yourself.

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27 responses to “New Word Rants—Don’t Kill the Messenger

  1. What a delicious and reasonable post. I have what used to be called a “high” view of language, I suppose, a reverence for words and their creative use. I also understand that language is due the same respect as every living thing. Because it is alive, capable of growth and change – and capable of being destroyed – it needs a few folks around to help it along.

    I can’t help but think of Mark Twain’s wonderful comment: “The difference between a word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.” It’s the task of the various dictionaries and such to help us find that right word

    • Hi Shoreacres, I also have a reverence for language, a deep curiosity toward its origins, and an absolute respect toward grammar and spelling.

      If some people feel that the language is being degraded, then that is a reflection of our society, and lexicographers have no choice but to record it. I may not like the new words, not because they’re words, but because the concepts they represent may conflict with my worldview.

      It’s all about information, not judgment—I’ve had this conversation so many times I felt the need to write about it. OUP receives piles of mail from readers irate about one word or another, but as you said, language is a living, breathing entity and no one can halt its change. Thanks for writing.

  2. Still wating for your comment about who REALLY started the big fire after spreading the McCain crapola that illegals were responsable.

    http://www.eacourier.com/articles/2011/08/24/news/breaking_news/doc4e5586f5af402546884523.txt

    • Dear Adrian Smith @ asmith@aol.com 207.5.120.2, this is hardly the post to discuss this. Please see my extensive coverage of the MONUMENT Fire, not the WALLOW Fire, as your link describes. The Wallow was known to be started by campers right from the start. Fire investigators pinpoint the ignition point of forest fires within days. Please see my posts regarding the MONUMENT FIRE, started in a well-used smuggling corridor on the Mexican border, right here in the forests near and dear to me. When you mention “the big fire,” please specify which one you mean, as we had three devastating fires here this summer. I know it’s hard for people who do not live here to understand.

      Thanks for following my blog, even if it is as a troll.

  3. I don’t see this as downgrading the language at all, it’s a matter of evolving. Purists have always infuriated me because they prefer to stagnate rather than evolve. Words develop according to usages of the time, let them check out the origins of “heirloom,” “doughboy” and “speakeasy.” Nothing obscene there, just related to current usages back then. You have to understand that for some, anything new is to be rejected. I totally agree that if they don’t like the words, let them rail against the situations and acts that created them and try to change those, rather than the language that expresses them.

    • Hi Ann, yes, think of the revolution of society at the turn of the last century. I’m sure many folks thought the many new dances, clothing, and attitudes quite indecent. Those people would be shocked by the many immodest behaviors of our modern culture that we find perfectly acceptable—along with the accompanying vocabulary. Hell, I’m shocked by it myself, but we still have to write it down.

  4. I totally agree. I must admit that I had to google “jeggings.”

  5. I am very interested in new words — I don’t know any writer who isn’t — so I certainly appreciate the work you do; it is like the ‘true’ grammar books that are NOT prescriptive but descriptive, recording language as it is used.

    • Hi JL, there are grammar trends, such as avoiding at all costs the passive voice, that are sentence-ruiners. I understand that publishers will cut the word “had” and I find this annoying, as it is the difference between a clear understanding of the writer’s meaning—or not. It’s shoddy and I won’t do it.

  6. Why does it bother me?

    Great post! I hate some of the new words that are out there, mostly because I have no idea what they mean, but it is a detailed part of recording human history. When I was a teenager, everything was ‘bad’ when it was good, ‘mega’ or we said ‘man’ A LOT. It is about trends!

    However can I implore with your readers, to join my soon to be started campaign to stop jeggings. They are bloody awful! Just wait till the East London trend of MAN LEGGINGS (or meggings as they are known hereabouts!) hits your world. Nothing prepares you. Nothing!

    • Ha ha WDIBM! I see a lot of jeggings here, usually worn by enormous people, probably because they have some spandex in them. Shudder!

      Please guys, don’t wear ‘meggings’! I never heard of them and don’t want to visualize. As if ‘mankinis’ weren’t bad enough!

      Yeah people say ‘sick’ or ‘dope’ now to mean ‘good.’ It always throws me, I hate it! These are new senses of old words, and can be very confusing and lead to misunderstanding. At least come up with some brand new words to mean ‘good’!

      I also despise the term ‘wifebeater’ for those sleeveless undershirts men wear. What an awful term!

      • Ha. I am so behind the curve. I had to google meggings and mankini, too. Based on what I saw we should be more worried about the creation of new fashions than about new words!

        • Ha ha so true Tom! If you’ve ever seen the movie Borat, the image of a mankini will forever be burned in your mind!

          Is the term “wifebeater” used in New Zealand?

          • No, I had to google that too! We used to call those tank tops but down here they are called singlets.

            BTW there are several interesting differences in terms down here. For example, a sweater is called a jumper, cookies are biscuits, gas is petrol, flip flops are called “jandals” which is short for Japanese Sandals because they look like them. Calling someone on the phone is referred to as “ringing” them, but calling in means actually stopping by. It took me some getting used to.

            • The clothing industry is trying to get away from the term wifebeater by marketing those shirts as “A-shirts,” and you can’t blame them, it’s an awful term.

              Those other terms sound very British, except for the jandals, I never heard that—a portmanteau word very similar to jeggings. I notice these word blends are becoming more and more popular, it seems there are thousands of them. Some, like motel or brunch, have been around so long we don’t even think about the two words they’re derived from. Some are creative, others are just blah—like think of a brand new word already! It’s also very common now to combine the names of celebrity couples, you didn’t see that years ago. Probably because our culture is so obsessed with celebrities. Jeez, I can’t imagine using the term “Brangelina.” Who the hell would say that? I don’t know but it sure is part of our culture.

              • Why does it bother me?

                I am so surprised that the lingo in NZ is so close to the UK! All those terms are the same as we use! How odd!
                But Jandals is MADNESS!
                Lol!

  7. George Orwell wrote about controlling the way people think by controlling their language. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, the compilers of the Newspeak dictionary were deleting words, not inserting new ones, as part of the mechanism of thought control. Ultimately, anyone who complains about new words being added are trying to hold back development and change in society – or possibly in themselves.

    Interestingly, the reaction to the new OUP here in the UK was more about the words they have declared “obselete”, in particular “aerodrome” [earlier form of ‘airfield’] and “charabanc” [1920s term for a type of open-topped bus, mainly used for excursions, sometimes with a canvas top]. Funnily enough, I heard someone use ‘charabanc’ on the radio last week. They were using it for comic effect rather than it being a word they’d use in everyday speech; but they were using it!

    • Hi Robert, well the Brits probably have more respect for the language than the Yanks. But isn’t it great to hear these old (or new) words and know what they mean.

      For a real look into Newspeak, browse the Urban Dictionary, where you’ll find every abusive or disgusting term defined, especially sexual or drug-related. We don’t touch that stuff!

  8. I’m all for it. As our world changes we need new words to describe things. It’s intriguing how new words catch on and become part of our language.

    But I can’t get over my disgust of “irregardless.” Yeah, people use it. They’re using a perfectly good word (regardless) wrong. If every mispronounced or incorrect word was included in the dictionary, it would double in size, and our language would degrade. Who decided to include irregardless? I need to have a word with that person.

    • Hi Kay, I agree, it’s an egregious redundancy. I hate irregardless as much as nuculer. But dictionaries also record usage, and irregardless is in OUP dictionaries with a Usage Note, a little feature underneath some words. It reads:

      Irregardless is widely heard, perhaps arising under the influence of such perfectly correct terms as irrespective, but should be avoided by careful users of English. Use regardless to ‘mean without regard or consideration for’.”

      Hundreds of Usage Notes are included with mispronounced or misinterpreted words throughout OUP dictionaries, because so many people say or write them that they try to explain why they’re wrong. I once tried to correct a state senator back east from using ‘irregardless’, and he argued with me. So now I shut up. I never correct anybody anymore (unless they ask me to), I just quietly sob.

      • Oh, but just the fact that it’s in there validates it for some people. These people don’t read the usage note.
        We’re all guilty of misusing words. I probably do more than I know (eek). But why did this particular one catch on like it did?

        • Kay, this damn word has been on my mind all day and I believe you’re right. A comely boldface entry does give it legitimacy, and I think you’re right in saying that many people won’t read further. Instead of putting it in as an entry, a usage note under regardless explaining that it’s incorrect to say irregardless might be more effective. That is, if people know to actually look up regardless. Or, they could put irregardless in as an entry and then cross-reference by saying “see regardless.” Usage notes are very polite—saying that a word should be “avoided by careful users of English” is perhaps not quite the slap that people need to stop—just stop—saying it. But mine is not to reason why…and maybe I’m even contradicting myself when I say that the purpose of dictionaries is to record the language. An example of a commonly misused word not found as an entry is alot. I see this constantly—it should be a lot, and it’s found under the entry lot, with a usage note.

          Back to irregardless, I don’t know why it’s such a common blunder. Probably because many people love to add an unnecessary extra syllable or two—they think it makes them sound smarter. Uh-oh, I feel a utilize rant coming on…

  9. We sometimes forget that language, and grammar, evolve. Otherwise we who speak English would sound like a verbal version of Beowolf. Now wouldn’t that be cool! Methinks so.

    • Hi Bill, I agree with thee! A few Old English words do survive in modern language, and at Renaissance fairs! Our language is a fascinating mixture of the ancient and the modern. One thing I love about thine posts is that I always learn a new botanical or geography term, then I actually use them.

  10. English continues to grow as an international language because it is willing to absorb new words. I think that is a good thing!

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