My word! Breathless despair over language change

I remember working on a copy desk once long ago and discussing with someone whether a word was actually a word.

“It’s not in the dictionary,” she said.

It’s true that the capital-D Dictionary offers a sort-of legitimacy to a language. If it’s in the dictionary, then of course it’s a bona fide word. But if it’s not, then it doesn’t — or shouldn’t — exist. This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding, I think, about how language works. See, words come first. Only later are they recognized (or not) by dictionaries or other sources. (Same with grammar. All those “rules” are really just descriptions of conventions already strongly in use, but that’s another discussion.)

Every year, when words are added to the dictionary, entire throngs of people wail and gnash their teeth. This year, f-bomb ignited a typical uproar (“a grave mistake”) when it was included in Merriam-Webster’s annual update. Buttload, bling, OMG — similar uprisings happened when these words were added to dictionaries in recent years.

Heavens, Oscar! Do you see that “buttload” is now in the dictionary? Whatever is happening to our fair language?

To me, though, words being recognized by dictionaries should bring celebration. It means the language is doing exactly what it needs to be doing. It grows and shifts and changes. Dictionaries adding (and removing) words shows us that the language is healthy and vibrant. This is good news for people who have been worried about English being destroyed by “other” cultures. Or for language purists who despair that the pristine English we all speak is somehow being sullied. Ain’t no sullying happening, folks. Just language change. It’s been happening since, well, the beginning of human language, so we better just relax and get used to it.

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