Category Archives: Dictionaries

News and views on what is happening in the world of dictionaries

I Heart The Word of the Year

If you need any more proof that the very fabric of the English language is changing then I give you the Global Language Monitor as Exhibit A. More specifically, I give you the announcement of its word of the year. Triumphant this year is the <3 emoji.

It’s not even a word, I hear you cry. Au contraire. If we take a word to be a discrete unit of meaning, which when used by one person is understood by another, then any emoticon clearly fits the bill. And while like letters they are symbols, in terms of usage they are words because they express an idea and a meaning, and sometimes a quite complex and subtle meaning, providing context and commentary on what is being written in a very neat and efficient manner. They have become one of the ultimate shorthands in informal, and sometimes even formal, communication, and I even now hear ‘heart’ in spoken situations, where it seems to mean something distinct from like or even love, a slightly more trivial affection.

So what does all this mean for our beloved language. Well basically, its evolution gathers pace. In the past I have written about how technology is changing grammar and even parts of speech. Now it is influencing the symbols themselves that we use to write with, so that our basic alphabet is now expanding and taking on new characters.

Does this mean we are all going to start writing in pictures and will now express ourselves solely with smiley faces and pictures of foaming mugs of beer? No, undoubtedly not.

But as technology increasingly influences the way language is used, and English continues to proliferate as a lingua franca across the globe, emoticons and symbols will increasingly break down language barriers and become part of a universal language of the future. So for the fans of Esperanto, :(.

Vape Wafts To Oxford Accolade

I’d been wondering more than usual this year as to what Oxford Dictionaries would announce as its word of the year. The reason is that I don’t think it has been a vintage year for words. I’ve been struggling to think of a new word coined this year that has really taken off, and this has been my least productive year since opening the virtual files of Wordability.

So it’s not a surprise that Oxford’s choice this year is not a word coined in 2014, and it’s not a surprise that the word was nigh on impossible to predict. The Oxford experts have plumped for Vape.

Vape is both a noun and a verb associated with electronic cigarettes. As a verb it means to inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette, while the noun refers to either the electronic device itself or the act of inhaling or exhaling the vapour produced.

Explaining the choice, Judy Pearsall, Editorial Director for Oxford Dictionaries, said: “As vaping has gone mainstream, with celebrities from Lindsay Lohan to Barry Manilow giving it a go, and with growing public debate on the public dangers and the need for regulation, so the language usage of the word ‘vape’ and related terms in 2014 has shown a marked increase.” That marked increase has seen usage of the word more than double over the last 12 months.

Other contenders were Bae, a term of endearment for one’s partner; Budtender, someone who dispenses cannabis; Contactless, relating to payments taken from cards or phones; Indyref, the Scottish Referendum; Normcore, ordinary clothes worn as a fashion statement; and Slacktivism, online participation for a cause but requiring little effort.

The real question for me is whether Vape really sums up 2014? Recent choices like Selfie and Omnishambles really summed up the mood of the year, they were great choices because they acted as a commentary on the 12 months they represented.

I can’t feel the same about Vape. When I think about 2014, Vape will not come to mind as a word that really captures the mood and spirit of the age. Rather it serves as a reminder of one particular development. Nonetheless, it could be the best of a bad bunch, as not only have great new words not emerged, actually capturing a sense of what the year has been all about has been strangely elusive in 2014.

And maybe that makes Vape a better and more profound choice than I first realised. It’s kind of unreal, ethereal even, and fake. Maybe a year that has been hard to sum up deserves a word of the year that relates to something which is a replacement for the real thing.

Countdown to a New Era

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. I am a huge fan of Countdown. I have been watching it on and off since its debut on Channel 4 in 1982, and though I seldom catch it now, I still like to test myself when I get the chance.

I appeared on the show in 1986, and still have regrets all these years later. A combination of an excellent opponent and the arrogance of my over-confident youth conspired to send me spinning to defeat in a contest I led twice. I still get shivers when I hear the word Spearhead, the conundrum which finally ended my challenge. I know I let myself down at the end. Rather than sitting there smiling warmly, happy just to have taken part, my expression was a bewildering mixture of sulking and fury over the fact that I had actually lost. Not exactly what the tea-time audience expects and something which in hindsight I should have handled somewhat better.

But no matter. The reason for this diversion into my personal Countdown hell is because Dictionary Corner has moved with the times, and from now on, the validity of words will no longer be checked using a printed volume. Instead, Susie Dent and her assorted helpers will use Oxford Dictionaries Online to see whether the words put forward by contestants should be allowed to stand.

I warmly welcome this move. It means that rather than relying on a book, which by the nature of language is out of date while it is still on the printing press, contestants will now be able to offer words which are current and used and accepted by Oxford’s lexicographical powers. So expect to see Selfie put forward on the show pretty soon.

While there will doubtless be complaints, and the linguistic luddites among us will decry this as further evidence of the death of the English language, we should ignore their complaints. As I have said many times, language is a living, breathing entity, owned by its users, and if its users have deemed that a word is now part of the language, well how can Countdown beg to differ.

This move might actually help to sell that message. The growth and evolution of the dictionary is not necessarily something that a lot of people think about. By making the changing nature of language central to a popular programme like Countdown, it will increase awareness of how language develops and evolves and how vital it is that those changes are tracked and recorded. If this move helps to reinforce that message, then Countdown will have done a great deal more than just offer an entertaining diversion of an afternoon.

Scrabbling To Find a New Word

The official Scrabble dictionary has not been updated since 2005. But of course much has changed since then, so with a new update on the way shortly, the process of adding to the official word list has also evolved.

And so Facebook comes in. Scrabble manufacturers Hasbro have launched a competition via the social network for people to nominate their suggested words. These will then be whittled down to a shortlist and from there, one will be chosen to be fast tracked into the dictionary.

In some ways, the coverage has been fairly predictable, with Selfie and Twerking emerging as the most likely words to win the vote, according to the papers at any rate, and they are included in the nearly 3,000 comments currently sitting on the page.

Personally I think that it is important to target words with large scores, preferably those containing the expensive letters. Having gone back through the annals of Wordability to find suitably high-scoring options, I come back with Grexit, while KALQ would also score well. Phubbing has a number of high scoring components, while also giving users a chance to get rid of all of their letters.

But I find myself agreeing with many of the people who have posted on the official page with suggestions. Step forward Bart Simpson, who famously invented the word Kwyjibo and scored over 100 points into the bargain. What a wonderful winner that would be, only slightly undermined by the fact it isn’t actually a real word.

Of course, life will not imitate art in this respect, and Kwyjibo will not be the winner of this contest. But I just hope that it is not something entirely obvious, and we are not treated to another round of Selfie and Twerking headlines before too long.

Check Out Your Trunklements

The way that language changes in the home is not always reflected in the wider picture of the English language. Communication recorded online can be easily analysed and dissected, showing us how English is evolving. But it is much harder to work out how people are talking in domestic situations if that communication is not recorded in any way.

An interesting insight has now emerged with the publication of The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, which contains a large number of words used in the home.

Newspapers have had fun with some of the headline-grabbing words that have emerged, such as the 57 different options for remote control, including blapper, zapper and dawicki, and the various ways of referring to a cup of tea, such as splosh or blish.

I personally prefer some of the really bizarre ones, such as trunklements, which are a grandparent’s personal possessions, grooglums, which are the bits of food left in the sink after you have finished the washing up, or frarping, the sctaching of one’s bottom.

These stories provide an inevitable outpouring of writing about how English is being destroyed, and the words are ridiculous, and people should speak properly, and so on.

However, I don’t think that these words reflect a language that anybody would think is appropriate for formal settings, or reflects that people are not speaking properly. We all speak differently at home and all have ways of talking that are distinct to our own home environment, which are unintelligible to other people. It is fascinating to get an insight into some of the words which are making their mark in a domestic setting, even if they are never going to become wider terms or find a place in the formal language.

Geeks Inherit The Earth

I’ve always wondered a little why Oxford Dictionaries unveils its word of the year in November, when there is still quite a bit of the year left to run. But now I can see the advantage of going first. You become the word of the year by which all other words of the year are judged, and you also ensure that other esteemed language bodies have to choose something else.

I think that since Selfie was unveiled as the Oxford choice, it has become established in people’s minds as the definitive word of the year, a status of course helped by Barack Obama et al. Nevertheless, further nominations have followed, and the latest two are interesting in different ways.

Collins dictionary has gone with Geek. I think this choice has been made for reasons more to do with the English language itself, rather than as a reflection of what society has been doing for the last 12 months. The main reason behind Geek’s prominence in Collins’ eyes is that its definition has now been radically changed over the last 12 months. No longer a pejorative term which almost demeans those to whom it is applied, it is now defined as “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. The addition of further terms such as Geekery and Geekdom simply sealed the deal.

It’s interesting reasoning but I wonder whether geek really has completely shaken off its past. The people I know in technology still describe themselves geeks in a tongue in cheek, slightly embarrassed way, rather than in a way that seems to wear it like a badge of honour. And in much the same way that Swedish nerds campaigned for a similar redefinition last year, I feel that this kind of alteration loses something of the genuine meaning of the word.

Dictionary.com has taken an alternative approach, going for a word that is neither new nor altered during the year, but has instead summed up the overriding themes 0f 2013. That choice is Privacy, and in an interesting analysis it cites Edward Snowden and Google among others that have contributed to privacy’s prevalence over the year.

If you are going down this route for your selections, then I think this one fits the bill pretty well as it certainly focuses on issues that have been strongly in people’s minds during 2013. I think it is certainly a more suitable choice than Merriam-Webster’s recent selection of Science.

So we now have Selfie, Bitcoin, Science, Geek and Privacy all rejoicing as words of the year. And Phubbing of course. I still prefer that above all others.

Bitcoins Prove Their Worth

The words of the year choices keep on coming, and Australian lexicographers have fixed on a suitable candidate to take their accolade.

Bitcoin is undoubtedly a word which has found its place in the lexicon this year, despite having been created five years ago. This digital currency has seen its usage in both financial and linguistic senses explode this year, and so the Australian National Dictionary Centre has named it as its word of the year.

It’s undoubtedly a good choice. It is a word which has been significant in public consciousness this year in a way that it wasn’t previously, while measurable usage itself has shot up 1,000%, according to the Australian experts.

Bitcoin is probably not quite as popular as Selfie, which simply confirmed its Oxford Dictionaries choice this week by becoming the centre of Barack Obama’s world. I suspect Australian experts couldn’t choose Selfie as well once Oxford had given it the nod, though it included it in its shortlist for the year, along with Twerk, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), Captain’s Pick and Microparty.

Sadly Phubbing did not make the shortlist, a shame considering it is a word of Australian origin. But when you consider that words like Bitcoin and Selfie are now being heralded as the words of the year, it means we may look back on 2013 as a year when we were self- and money-obsessed, which is not necessarily the most flattering reflection of ourselves.