The tail end of summer is always a fertile time for lovers of new words. ‘Tis the season of dictionary updates, and as each publisher puts out their own list of additions, so column inches and discussions ensue about their relative merits as English vocabulary enjoys a brief moment in the media spotlight.
Now, as Wordability prepares to enter its second year (a year already, amazing!), I have decided to buck my usual trend and not bemoan the length of time it takes for established words to gain acceptance. And it would be easy. After all, OED online has finally recognised Tweeps, a person’s Twitter followers, a word which while recent has certainly gained enough credibility over the last couple of years to have deserved official recognition before now. Meanwhile in the States, Merriam-Webster has included sexting and gastropub for the first time, words that have been around for some time.
No, what has bothered me about this particular round of coverage is the reaction of some commentators and in discussion pages about some of the words which have been included. The OED’s acceptance of Ridic and Mwahahaha, Chambers adding Glamping and Defriend to a section of its thesaurus – words such as these have seen the language pedants roll up their sleeves and go to work.
The curmudgeons argue that such words defile the English language, that its purity and beauty is somehow soiled by these trendy new terms as they gain usage and then acceptance. And of course, everybody who gives this opinion completely misses the point.
Because English is not a static museum piece, it is not a thing put into a book to be learnt as it is. No, it is a beautifully evolving stream, which is allowed to constantly change and grow to truly reflect how its speakers use it. Its incredible flexibility is one of the principal reasons behind its success as a global tongue, and not acknowledging this is simply not getting it. It is vital for dictionary makers to add new words as they become popular and embedded, and not listen to the luddites who would still speak like Shakespeare.
And people may want to view the situation in China, where natural evolution of the language is not allowed. Commonly used English words and phrases have now been included in the latest edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary, and scholars have argued that Chinese law itself has been broken by the move.
Pedants in the English-speaking world may think they want a language which doesn’t change, and may believe they want dictionary makers to ignore the language that is actually spoken. But it is vital that lexicographers continue to reflect the language as it truly is, and that we all celebrate the fact that we live somewhere where they are allowed to do that.