Are you a bit of a ‘broflake‘—a pal who makes social arrangements but then always pulls out with last-minute excuses? Perhaps you’re more worried about appearing to be a milkshake duck—one of those people on social media who appears to be interesting at first, but on closer examination seems to have an unappealing backstory? Or are you just too busy keeping up with the latest ‘youthquake‘—a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the influence of younger people?
These three phrases were among the many that recently found a home in the Oxford Dictionary, the bible of the English lexicon, in which lucky words find a home forever. That’s unlike, for example, the likes of ‘wurfing’—surfing the Internet while at work; ‘scrax’—the silver foil coating on scratch cars; or ‘peppier’—the waiter whose sole job seems to be offering diners ground pepper; for these are just some of the many words over recent years that didn’t make it in. Other words—’earworm‘, ‘locavore‘—have lived in limbo for years, but finally found acceptance.
English is a living language, of course. It may be hard for them to get dropped from dictionaries once they’re in, but words also fall out of usage—as, for example, many of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historic dictionary, have done. Few people these days talk of being “shinnicked”— paralysed with cold; of being “primpit”—stiffly dressed; or of being either “callipygian”—having well-shaped buttocks—or a “wagpastie”, a rogue; as charming as these words are. Likewise, whether the idea of eating local produce will require its own word in a generation, who knows? Words change meaning through usage too, sometimes radically and even mistakenly: “peruse” may be better understood now as to glance over a text; its first dictionary definition is “to read thoroughly”, the complete opposite. “Nice” used to mean silly.
broflake / brəʊfleɪk /
A man who is readily upset or offended by progressive attitudes that conflict with his more conventional or conservative views.
‘there was predictable disquiet from various broflakes on social media’
youthquake / juːθkweɪk /
A significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.
‘a youthquake has altered the Westminster landscape’ ‘couture is undergoing something of a youthquake’
Yet how do words make it into the big book in the first place? Words are generated in abundance all the time: the OED—arguably the most authoritative but still just one of dozens of different dictionaries—added over 1,100 new words at its latest update at the start of this year. Why do some words get the official stamp of approval—or at least recognition—while others, it seems, find no resonance at all outside their own intimate circle?
“At its simplest, words are born essentially by people making them up because there’s an idea that needs to be expressed. And, increasingly, by borrowing them from other languages too,” explains Dr Danica Salazar, world English editor at the OED. “This is especially the case now that English is used all over the world and is in contact with so many other languages. Ultimately the fate of a word depends simply on how many people pick it up, on whether it enters common parlance.”
Common may not be so common that it includes you. It’s a big planet. But Oxford Dictionaries’ team of lexicographers are sufficiently well-read to prove weather vanes of the prevailing wordy winds. Once upon a time, the Oxford Reading Programme employed volunteers to read texts, underline the interesting use of words, note them on slips of paper, with a citation [the word, an example of the word in action and bibliographic information regarding its source], and send them to Oxford. Now, most of the legwork is done by an algorithm: a database that can scan texts—from newspapers to packaging, blogs to bottle wrappers—to take the temperature of a word’s usage online and off.
earworm / ɪəwəːm /
A catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind.
‘and earworm attacks were more frequent—and lasted longer—for musicians and music lovers’
locavore / ləʊkəvɔː/
A person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.
‘staples like coffee, tea, salt and sugar can be difficult if not impossible to find close to home, and there most locavores make concessions’
The public too can suggest words, though their recommendation—no matter how useful, inventive or entertaining the word seems—will need to find plenty of evidence to get much further. Last year, a six-year-old boy, Levi Budd, of Victoria, Canada, petitioned Merriam-Webster (North America’s answer to Oxford) to include—self-aggrandisingly, as only a six-year-old might—the word “levidrome”. It’s a take on palindrome, playwright Ben Johnson’s word for a word that spells the same word in reverse, such as “tenet”, but is defined as a word that spells another word backwards, such as “stop” and “pots”. Remarkably, there is no word for this phenomenon. But, unfortunately for Levi, as Webster pointed out, all he now has to do is make his word popular. He is off to a good start: William Shatner tweeted his support.
“If you’re Hungarian and dealing with some 200 endings to a single verb, new coinages are not so easy. English lends itself to innovation.”
Michael Rundell, editor-in-chief of Macmillandictionary.com, suggests that there are a handful of ways by which new English words tend to be coined: by blending existing words or parts of them—“techlash”; by clipping existing words—“totes” from “totally”; by turning nouns into verbs; and often through metaphor—look at the way computing has repurposed existing words the likes of “virus” or “window”. “Japanese is very inventive, so English is not alone. But it does help that English is structurally simple and stripped down,” he says. “If you’re Hungarian and dealing with some 200 endings to a single verb, new coinages are not so easy. English lends itself to innovation.”
But it’s not enough that a word merely pops up. The OED editors—the detectives of the world of words—will then research said word in search of independent examples of its wide usage, tonally and geographically, and over a good stretch of time, to be sure the word is more than a passing fad or a writer’s one-off imaginative coinage. That matters perhaps not just because plenty of words come and go, but because entering a word into a dictionary encourages its use. Lastly, the word has to have substance: it has to have lexical meaning, rather than simply being nonsense, even if that nonsense sounds real enough.
“I’m an anaspeptic, frasmostic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.”
When, in the cult British comedy series, Blackadder, the eponymous hero meets Dr Samuel Johnson—the historical figure and, what’s more inventor of the dictionary in 1755—he tries his utmost to pop the pioneer lexicographer’s pomposity by suggesting countless words he may have missed out. “I’m anaspeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation,” Blackadder notes. Johnson himself—in life, not in the sitcom—conceded that it is “not easy to determine by what rule of distinction the words of this [ie his] dictionary were to be chosen”.
“We don’t say that a word has to come up a certain number of times, as clearly a word like ‘selfie’ would produce millions of results, whereas a word of interesting scientific use may be just as important but not as widely used,” says Salazar. “Words don’t have to be widely known to be of historic, linguistic or cultural significance.”
Certainly, the lexicographic landscape is changing rapidly. For one, there’s its new speed, a product of the Internet, of course, but also globalisation’s encouragement of the exchange of words: when Frances McDormand spoke of an “inclusion rider” during her Oscar speech in February, an industry term became widely known almost overnight.
“Once a word might take years, even decades, to get from London to New York. ‘Selfie’, which originated in Australia, went global in a matter of days,” notes Salazar. “Someone with a big Twitter following can just make a word up and it catches on.” Thanks to English becoming the language of business, word creation isn’t restricted to English-speaking territories either: local peoples give local spins to a word, which then can feed back into the greater system.
“Words don’t have to be widely known to be of historic, linguistic or cultural significance.”
The fact that dictionaries are now also online—rather than updated every few years as they were prior to digital publishing—means that they, too, can be more responsive to the rise of new words; as, say, publisher Macmillan did when the 2007 edition of its print dictionary was followed by a rash of words and phrases leading from the 2008 financial crisis, the likes of “credit crunch”, “toxic” (as in bad debt) and “quantitative easing”—even if these phrases have not made it into all dictionaries. The flip side is that dictionaries are no longer restricted by the space constraints of a fixed number of pages, which, it’s argued, has necessitated a finer selectivity and demand for evidence.
But the 21st-century speed and diversity of word creation mean that lexicographers are always playing chase. “Remember that a word is in the dictionary because it’s already in use,” notes Salazar. “Words are made up to meet the specific communication needs they have to fulfil. As lexicographers, we’re always just trying to catch up.” Indeed, new words are more than just the product of some linguistic dexterity. They’re a reflection of the state, interests and concerns of society at large, of the society that makes them. The recent addition of the likes of “carbon footprint” and “staycation” to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, reflects our concerns regarding both our impact and income, “binge watch” what we do with our downtime, “listicle” the decline of journalism… Consider, too, the likes of “compassion fatigue”, “revenge porn”, “micro-loan”, “athleisure” and “FOMO”.
“Through the coinage of words you can see what people are thinking about, what’s concerning them and how they live,” says Michael Rundell. “‘Computer’ is a word that seems to be dying out because every gadget we use now is a kind of computer. In fact, young people today often don’t even know they’re using this thing called a dictionary—they just type a word into Google. Maybe the word ‘dictionary’ will in time die out.”
“Words are made up to meet the specific communication needs they have to fulfil. As lexicographers, we’re always just trying to catch up.”
Indeed, to trace a word to its origins is, in effect, to chart a history of English-speaking peoples and see how words are forged by history, politics, sport, lifestyle and advancement, scientific or otherwise. “Gate”, from Watergate, for example, may have been a suffix applied to many a scandal ever since President Nixon’s undoing in 1972—the suffix denotes the presence of a controversy— but its increased use over recent years perhaps reflects more scandal-ridden, or scandalised times. “Harveygate”—after Harvey Weinstein—is the just one of the latest. Chart a seemingly innocuous phrase the likes of “dog food” back far enough, and you get a picture of how people’s thinking towards domestic animals started to shift, such that they began to be seen as deserving as their own category of sustenance, rather than scraps from the table. Phrases become indicators of attitudes and values.
For all that a hefty dictionary is typically considered the final word, so to speak, in a word’s validity, prevailing cultural standards always have an influence, as notes Jonathon Green, considered to be the leading authority on English slang—all that marginalised street language that breaks the rules and bucks the system and, in doing so, is often the wittiest, most insightful side of English altogether. Obscenities have always proved problematic for various editors: the OED recognises “shit”, for example, but not “shit-stirrer”.
“The main quality of slang is sedition—not giving a fuck,” says Green. “Linguists have a problem with that and I understand that. Slang represents us at our most human—it’s about defecation, getting pissed, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s more than that and people tend to be unwilling to acknowledge its creativity, its play on standard English, and the fact that, because it’s been pejorative, for centuries it just hasn’t been recorded. That is changing. The problem now is less where do I find slang but, thanks to the Internet, when do I stop?”
“Slang represents us at our most human—it’s about defecation, getting pissed, sex, drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll. But it’s more than that and people tend to be unwilling to acknowledge its creativity, its play on standard English, and the fact that, because it’s been pejorative, for centuries it hasn’t been recorded.”
But then new words have always upset someone somewhere. People tend not to like their language being “messed” with. Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan, has pointed out that in 1760 Benjamin Franklin noted how bad he thought the word “colonise” was; in 1875 Dean Henry Alford complained that “desirability” is a terrible word. Neither complaints were heard. The same happens now—“defriend”, “LOL”, “impact” as a verb, and so on.
The dictionary, Green argues, has long conformed to a specific point of view that might be seen as an attempt to control the language; it’s more explicit in the case of the French Academy, which is openly proscriptive and prescriptive in what will and won’t pass for “proper” French, and which has only reluctantly allowed foreign—and it seems, especially English—words to creep into the fold. The official French for “cocktail” is “cocktail”; for “weekend” it’s “le weekend”. Sheer usage triumphed. Language, lest we forget, is organic. The dictionary is in flux—and may yet have to be more responsive to the expectations of users of the web, who may find it unacceptable that a word in their common use is not also found in their online dictionary, regardless of the word’s history or credibility. That may challenge the very idea of the dictionary as an authority, even perhaps what a dictionary is for.
Certainly how it is compiled will likely change. The dictionary of the future might, in the longer term, be entirely self-updating: a system that trawls for words, does all the checks to ensure it’s looking at a distinct lexical item, and—once the tricky part of ascertaining the correct meaning is done—adds to its body of words accordingly. Much, if not all, of the technology to do this is already in place. In the meantime, alternative dictionaries and methodologies are already being proposed: Dictionary.com recently started to add emojis, something that traditionalists can be up in arms over, but a move of which Rundell approves. “These are, after all, symbols with meaning. Take how the goat emoji 🐐 has come to stand for Greatest Of All Time.” Or there are the likes of Wordnik, a less judgmental online dictionary established with the intention of including all words, no matter how short-lived or local. It justifies its entries by using software to pull examples from the web, Twitter and even Flickr. This makes it a repository of words both unusually rare and new.
“These are, after all, symbols with meaning. Take how the goat emoji has come to stand for Greatest Of All Time.”
It’s something more august dictionaries are getting into: this year saw Oxford Dictionaries add to its online collection the likes of ‘mansplaining‘ and ‘side boob’. This is perhaps a sign of the times: with so many dictionaries now available for free online, being the most comprehensive—rather than the most authoritative—arguably has market value.
More importantly, it’s a way of nudging aside the age-old gatekeepers and allowing all new words to be embraced by the language, even if only fleetingly. That’s why some dictionaries are using crowdsourcing to uncover new words. In 2014 Collins even allowed its users to choose a new word through Twitter. They came up with ‘adorkable‘—fun, but hardly useful. Not like ‘hangry’—angry because hungry—which seems to finally give a name to a widely experienced state of being; or ‘poonami’—a poo tsunami—yet to make it into the dictionary but surely, as any parent will know, definitively the word that fits the mucky experience.
mansplaining / manspleɪnɪŋ /
The explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronising.
‘your response is classic mansplaining’
adorkable / əˈdɔːkəb(ə)l /
Unfashionable or socially awkward in a way regarded as appealing or cute.
‘he is so adorkable I could just hug him to death’
‘the most adorkable actress on the big screen’
‘your adorkable qualities are part of your charm’