So every now and then there’s a news story about new words being added to the dictionary that’s framed as both hilarious and awful because they’re all horribly outré modern words that are all gross and icky. Most of them come from the internet, though others may incorporate other new usages in English. People express shock, horror, and disgust that we’re allowing the language to be polluted this way, and not only that, we’re sanctifying it by putting it in the dictionary, where it will endure for generations to come as an official part of the English language lexicon.
This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the purpose of dictionaries, in addition to the usual snobbishness, and it indicates that people don’t really understand English, either. And really, people ought to know better, because this is some pretty basic stuff, and we don’t really need to collapse into abject moral panic over adding new words to the dictionary. In fact, increasing the number of words in the dictionary is a good thing that we should be celebrating.
Let’s start with English. I’m going to skip over the extensive history of the English language and focus on the fact that, lexicographically speaking, it’s a very large language; some scholars contend that it is in fact the largest. English acquires new words at an amazing rate, and it’s constantly in a state of flux and change because it’s a living language. As people use it, they adapt it for their own purposes, and as they adapt it, words slip in and out of nomenclature. That’s how living languages work, because inflexible languages can’t keep pace with their changing societies. Thus, we need a word like ‘followers’ in the sense of people who follow you on social media, separate from other meanings of ‘followers,’ because we need a way to express that particular cultural phenomenon.
Snobs seem to think that English should stay in a fixed, rigid state. They don’t seem to be exactly sure on what year should be the cutoff, but they’re very determined that English shouldn’t admit any more words, and that neologisms are a pollution of the language. A language that’s already a hodge-podge of languages, an amazing mish-mash of cultures and roots and meanings. They’re especially offended by things like ‘incorrect’ grammar and spelling, apparently unaware that standardisation in English is both relatively new and not as reliable as they seem to think it is—check out dictionary spellings for some commonly-used words if you don’t believe me, and you may find that some major dictionary writers can’t agree on their spellings.
And let’s talk about dictionaries, speaking of which. A dictionary is a living document of a language. But more than that, it’s a document of the way a language changes and evolves. There are, as we know, a lot of different kinds of dictionaries; the Oxford English Dictionary (my personal favourite), for example, is an extensive document of as many words as possible in the English language, tracing them back to their first recorded usage, talking about their evolution, and looking at their roots. Other dictionaries are intended to act more like modern compendiums of working, currently-used English.
The thing is that a dictionary like the OED, or another document that’s intended to look at the history of English, not just provide current definitions for words, is intended to be used for generations. The purpose of the dictionary is to be available to anyone who wants to use it to look something up to gain a deeper understanding of the language and how it’s used, and to create a frame of reference for things that people are reading, writing, and talking about.
I use the OED constantly because I’m always encountering unfamiliar obscure and sometimes outdated words, sometimes in surprisingly recent publications, and I want to know what they mean, where they came from, and when/why we stopped using them. I use it because I want to learn more about the origins of words I use every day. I use it because I want to see if a word I want to use would be an anachronism in the time period I’m writing in; when did people start saying ‘the bee’s knees’? This is critically important information for writers and readers, editors and scholars.
Because adding new words to the dictionary is all about a celebration of history, and a reference. Imagine if we constantly edited all our dictionaries to remove obscure and outdated words, or didn’t permit slang in the dictionary. People 20, 30, 40, 100 years in the future would be reading works we’re producing now and saying ‘what does this mean?’ They’d be missing fundamental parts of the text, and might even end up completely misreading it, because they wouldn’t have the frame of reference provided by the dictionary.
This is why publications like the OED are constantly being updated, and it’s why they add vast numbers of words, including slang, words that don’t pass snob muster, and words that seem weird or outdated. It’s because it’s designed to be an authoritative compendium of the history of English and all the things that have passed through it at various times. We don’t speak and write like the Elizabethans did, but we still have the capacity to read and understand Elizabethan English in addition to performing it on stage, even though it’s 400 years old. The reason for that? The dictionary, and the fact that people painstakingly spent time compiling and understanding these words in the 1800s because they knew that if they didn’t, their meanings would be lost, and future scholars would struggle to understand a key period in history.
Thus, I’m always excited, rather than horrified, when I see new words added to the dictionary. They’re a reflection of the lively nature of English and the worlds it inhabits, the way we can make new words come to life and create new terms and ideas for describing the world around us. And, I’m not going to lie, I kind of like the idea of being an OED entry myself someday—of being, perhaps, noted as the author of the first written incidence of a word that might be obscure 100 years in the future, but meant something important at the time.