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The Internet's 'Twerk' Effect Makes Dictionaries Less Complete

Evidently it was quite fortuitous. Just a couple of days after MTV's Video Music Awards, Oxford Dictionaries Online released its quarterly list of the new words it was adding. To the delight of the media, there was "twerk" at the top, which gave them still another occasion to link a story to Miley Cyrus' energetic high jinks.

And why not add "twerk"? It's definitely a cool word, which worked its way from New Orleans bounce music into the linguistic mainstream on the strength of its expressive phonetics, among other things. It won't linger — the names of dance styles rarely do — but we'll have a historical record of it in the section reserved for forgotten forbidden dances, along with "lambada" and "turkey trot." Now that dictionaries are online, space is unlimited; you're never going to have to ask the outdated words to give up their spots to make room for the new ones coming on.

All the dictionaries periodically release a list of their new words, most of them provocatively cute and fleeting. Chambers Dictionary announces they've got "mocktail." Merriam's counters with "man cave." Collins includes " squadoosh," an Italian-American slang word that means "zilch." And Oxford's recent list included "selfie," "fauxhawk" and the exclamations "derp" and "squee," not to mention the abbreviation SRSLY, as in "seriously." If you haven't picked up on all of these yet, I wouldn't worry. None of them is likely to outlive your hamster.

True, the dictionaries are also adding durable new items like "cloud computing," "systemic risk" and baseball's "walk off." (It mystifies me that it took 150 years to come up with a word for that.) But it's the ephemeral and faddish ones that generate the most arresting media headlines: "It's official! Oxford declares 'selfie' a real word!"

The dictionaries themselves disavow any official role in defining a "real word" — these are just items that we've been noticing a lot, they say. But they know perfectly well that the only reason the announcements get picked up is that people still believe that dictionaries are gatekeepers whose inclusion of a word confers approval.

There was a time when dictionaries were expected to restrict themselves to words that had reputable literary credentials. Back in 1961, Merriam-Webster set off a cultural firestorm for opening the columns of its new unabridged to parvenus like "litterbug," "wise up" and "yakking." Critics accused Merriam's of "subversion" and "sabotage," and The New York Times charged that the dictionary was accelerating the deterioration of the language.

But modern lexicographers don't need to provide a literary pedigree for new items like "mwahahaha," which Oxford defines as "used to represent triumphant or cackling laughter ... uttered by a villainous character in a cartoon."

And while those inclusions can still trigger a few indignant squeals, the media are rarely so uncool as to object to them. When the OED added some texting abbreviations a couple of years ago, The Times ran an editorial headed "OMG!!! OED!!! LOL!!!!!" and applauded Oxford for its "affirmation of the plasticity of the English language."

That shift in attitudes began in the '60s, when dictionaries began to draw more of their words from the newly respectable genres of popular culture. But it's the Internet that has really opened things up. 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. Public and private, formal and casual, highbrow and low — the Internet is a storm surge that churns it all up and heaps it in everybody's front yard.

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.

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 to 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.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Airwith Terry Gross.
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