Twittionary: New words, Social media and a controversy in the Oxford English Dictionary

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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is arguably the world’s premier dictionary (sorry America). First published in 1911 (making this year it’s centenary) with the full dictionary published only twice in it’s history in bound volumes (in 1928 and 1989). It is not surprising that the full edition of the dictionary may never be printed again and will only be available in its online repository.

 

            The main problem with the full dictionary in printed form is that the English language incorporates new words into its vocabulary at a very rapid pace; add to this a substantial reassignment of meaning to many other words, including those that accommodate cultural contexts in the many regions around the world where English is spoken and we have a need to almost constantly update the dictionary. While for several reasons real-time updating is not possible we can ensure that it occurs at regular intervals in the online medium. It is important to note that at last count over 600,000 words had been tabulated for the latest major update currently underway.

 

            Recently 400 words found their way into the dictionary and a few of them have made me sit up and appreciate the value of their inclusion. Behind every entry is the story of why it came to be used – and this has been true from the beginning of the English language – and the internet revolution has created an exciting new environment in which words can be invented, adopted, and fused much to the benefit of the language.

 

            In the last five years social media has created an environment in which new words could develop daily. This can also be expanded into the now traditional world of the SMS as well. Thus we have terms such as sextingretweetcyberbullying, and textspeak. These words owe their existance to the internet and mobile technology and (according to the publisher’s blog) mark the beginning of the acceptance of Generation Y’s contribution to the language (and thus to the dictionary).

 

            However, not all internet influenced additions are new words. Words such as follower and friend have been assigned additional meanings as bestowed on them by Twitter and Facebook respectively. While this does represent a severe watering down of the meaning and intensity of both words, it also forms a strong indication of how the internet and social media in particular have changed the landscape of interaction in modern society.

 

            All in all these words have established this is the age of social media, attracting hedge funds, aiding revolutions, engendering new thoughts and opinions, and modernising marketing among other things. 

 

            Social networks have become communication outlets for people on the left and the right, in the middle and on the fringes. If we expand our analysis into the blogging world (especially WordPress, Tumblr, and Blogger) we would see that this number is substantial. The most popular centre of political activity however is Twitter. Twitter has become a place to promote your work, interact with likeminded people, a strange medium for Role Playing Games (some overtly sexual ones exist with characters from popular teen dramas), etc. In the last elections in the United States, it also became a medium through which the candidates communicated directly with US citizens. It is this that brings us to a controversial point in the new influx of internet influenced words in the dictionary.

 

            Last year the OED acknowledged the interaction between politics and social networks by bestowing on the Sarah Palin-tweeted blooper word refudiate the title of Word of the Year. Needless to say this award caused uproar – because of the identity of the person coining it, the false nature of its construction, and the religious bigotry that was behind the use of the word in the first place (regarding the so called Ground Zero Mosque). This obviously caused the non-right-wing fraternity on twitter to go into a tizzy but while I am with them on this one I think it is still fair for inclusion but it is definitely not word of the year material!

 

            The recent inclusions are further indication of the changing nature of English in today’s world. While celebrations and complaints arise in equal measure it is important to note some points about the static nature of the English language. The top 100 words (in terms of usage) make up 50% of written English all over the world. That is about 0.017% of the words in the OED. Lastly, for those celebrating or lamenting the latest inclusions into the language, it should be known that the majority of frequently used words in the language (eg. He, him, of, for, in, name, come, were, was, etc) are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

 

            As I look over this piece, at the little squiggly lines below the new entries, I break into a smile – spellcheck has a long way to go before it can catch up with the 100-year-old Oxford English Dictionary.


Rahul D'souza currently tries to include Milan Kundera's The Joke in every conversation involving political repression. He loves Art, History, Science, Food, Music and Technology - and is incredibly weird. Write to him: rahul@thecityslacker.com and follow him on Twitter