Winter is Coming for Snowflakes

When I was writing last week’s Wordability column, I found myself pondering the new meaning for the world Snowflake, that is, a person who is over-emotional or easily offended, someone who can brook no argument with opposing points of view.

So I’m quite pleased I waited a week, because this week Merriam-Webster announced a raft of new words and revised definitions in their dictionary, and Snowflake’s new identify was celebrated.

It’s interesting though that in the revised definition, the focus remains on the sensitivity side, rather than the inability to deal with an opposing argument. I have seen the word Snowflake used with increasing ferocity in online debates about Brexit, political correctness, the environment, and other divisive issues of the day. It has certainly become the standard term to throw at anybody who seems to have a more liberal view of the world, and is used to suggest that those who think that way are somehow lacking, lesser people. To be honest, I have become increasingly annoyed about it. And if you want to call me a snowflake for saying that, well so be it.

Of course, the irony of the timing of this dictionary update should not be lost on anyone. Snowflake’s update comes on the same weekend that Winter is finally coming on televisions across the globe, with the titanic Game of Thrones battle between the living and dead about to be screened.

Whoever prevails in that battle, wouldn’t it be good if the snowflakes could prevail in the online battles of the day, and the thought out and nuanced positions which they often represent can successfully withstand the name calling and heat which often comes from the other wide. Then we could perhaps confirm that Winter is Coming in the most positive sense.

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Language’s Greatest Era

As Wordability celebrates its 200th posting, it’s time to pause for a moment and take stock of the state of language today.

When I started the Wordability blog, I knew that the constant stream of new words and phrases which flood into the English language would ensure that there would always be a steady flow of things to write about. Added to that, the reaction that such stories often engender in the media confirmed that there would also be an audience who would find such musings interesting.

But what has become increasingly apparent is that much of that interest stems from people who want to moan and complain about the way that language changes, and protest that terms that become recognised as words simply aren’t words at all and should be sent back to where they came from.

This has been particularly apparent in the last few weeks, when a couple of high-profile organisations announced additions to their corpus. The Scrabble dictionary updated to use many new terms, which allowed headline writers everywhere to condemn this ‘Ridic’ development as ‘Obvs’ not ‘Dench’. Then US dictionary Merriam-Webster revealed its latest additions, with WTF lending itself most obviously to people who wanted to criticise the move. And even the French got in on the act, with their much-proclaimed ban on English words seemingly being relaxed in some volumes and Selfie finding a place in their listings.

So what does all this mean? Well to a blogger like myself, it means I will never be short of anything to write about. For as long as new words keep appearing and people continue to react to them, I will continue to have a blog worth maintaining.

However, it means a great deal more than that. Because I think this is the most exciting era for language development that there has ever been. The digital era in which we now reside has changed everything in ways that we don’t recognise ourselves yet, and will only recognise perhaps when we have a little more hindsight and perspective on the radical times in which we live. It is undeniable that the pace of life has changed and the global nature of our community has changed. And all of this has meant that language evolution has sped up to such a degree that we almost can’t keep track of it.

It’s not just the new words which appear, it is the challenges to the structure of language itself. It is these things which make this the most exciting era of language evolution there has ever been, not only because of the changes but also because of the footprint of change which digital technology provides, meaning we can track and understand those changes better than ever. We have a record of what is going on. As parts of speech change, new parts of speech emerge, and even new languages appear with extraordinary rapidity, this is a period to be heralded as amazingly exciting and not one to be condemned by those who believe that language is set in stone. It isn’t.

So what do I expect to write about in my next 200 postings? Will the English language look the same in 200 postings’ time? Well there will certainly be abundant new words, but many of those will disappear after their brief flowering and never come back again. For every selfie there are 10 Bleisures. People will continue to use -gate as a suffix with stupefying monotony. Hashtags will continue to evolve and become ever more powerful as means of communication. Technology and the internet will remain the greatest drivers of change. English will also continue to invade other languages, as the lingua franca of mass communication continues to define itself.

And throughout it all, vast swathes of people will continue to complain that English is being ruined and violated by the changes that are unavoidable. I look forward to reading the stories, writing about the developments, and ensuring that Wordability keeps abreast of all of the key new terms that our enriching our magnificent language.

The Scientific Approach

There are many ways to choose a word of the year. Merriam-Webster, the leading dictionary in the United States, opts for a scientific approach. It sees which word word has increased its look-ups in its online dictionary the most over the year, and simply gives it to that one. Ironically, this approach has yielded the word it deserves this year. The scientific methodology means that its word of the year is Science.

Its true that science has been in the news more this year than many others, with fresh space exploration on Mars, spectacular meteors and comets and the search for the Higgs Boson particle all issues which entertained the public and the media during 2013. “It is a word that is connected to broad cultural dichotomies: observation and intuition, evidence and tradition,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster.

For me, the problem with taking this approach to choosing a word of the year is that it ignores the gut instinct part, the human analysis that says while a word may be getting people’s attention more than it has in recent years, that doesn’t make it the word that sums up the year. Look-ups of science rose 176% this year to win it the prize. If the word Mugwump had been looked up 50 times last year and 200 times this year, it would have had a greater increase but would certainly not have been a suitable candidate for this accolade.

Writers around the world have had fun comparing the choice of Science with the Oxford Dictionary choice of Selfie, But Selfie says something about 2013 in a way that I don’t think Science really does. We will look back on this year as one where science came more the forefront of people’s minds than previously, but it wasn’t the subject that defined the year. All of which means that you need more than a scientific approach when it comes to deciding on the word of the year.

New Words Which are not Ridic

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.