September 26, 2018

Dictionaries are making some of the worstest decisions

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In the Oxford English Dictionary’s latest update it added more than 1,000 words; one of these was “worstest.” Since when did a 5-year-old join the OED’s team of editors? Is this 5-year-old going to suggest adding “catcheded” too? What about “bestest”?

Oxford, you are a dictionary. Please have some self-respect. Adults who use this kind of word should not be encouraged.

Any language undergoes change, and there will always be unlearned utterances that persist no matter how many times the utterer is told it’s not a word. People were using “ain’t” back in the 1700s and they just won’t stop.

So the dictionary compromises, adding such words but carefully placing “informal” or “slang” after them in italics, keeping them in their own little penalty box, to discourage the words from gaining any further status in the English language, though they’re regularly used.

But do some words even deserve this? Do we really think “on fleek” will be used for centuries to come? (Especially when it takes just as much effort to say the already established term “on point” and mean the exact same thing.) And don’t get me started on the mind-numbing “bae.”

I’m afraid most people who use these kind of words, when they hear or read on social media that they are in the dictionary (because they do not actually look up the entry in the dictionary themselves — certainly not, God forbid, in a physical dictionary) will triumphantly declare that their use of the word is justified, because it’s in the dictionary.

The OED made some moves last year that I can concede to. It added binge-watch and photobomb — silly words, nevertheless useful these days to describe actual behaviors — and first world problem (correction, OED: first-world problem). “Ginger” became an official noun for red-haired people (um, shouldn’t this have been in the dictionary 20-plus years ago?), as did the metaphorical “train wreck” (I prefer trainwreck), for “an utter disaster or mess.” (Yet, here’s another dilemma: how far do we go with metaphors in the dictionary? If the context is clear and the meaning of the original word known, can people not add two and two together and realize it’s a metaphor?)

I get that “face-palm” could be easier than saying, “He covered his face with his palm.” But for a lot of these additions, I feel it wouldn’t be that much harder to use the extra couple syllables (if that) of existing words rather than the new term, which may or may not gain momentum to become a long-lasting member of the English language, and which you will inevitably end up having to explain to someone not in the know, ultimately using more words.

We all live in our own circles of specialized terms — thus the addition of “microbiome” is perfectly acceptable as a new scientific term, and those who suffer from prosopagnosia (“an inability to recognize faces”) will be glad to know their issue is officially recognized now. But should using “weak sauce” as “something inferior, ineffective or unimpressive” be acceptable in any circle? Should this person not be quietly gagged and dragged into a dark corner to think about what they have done with their life?

What about words for basic human behaviors that have been around for centuries, but which some suddenly feel need to be legitimized (excused, downplayed?) with their own specialized words — “humblebrag” or “hangry”? Are some of these terms encouraging affectation or exaggeration in everyday behavior?

Maybe the point should be that the dictionary isn’t really meant to legitimize the latest slang or even keep up with it — it’s not just there to entertain with amusing tweets to share with your friends or start useless debate. (After all, Merriam-Webster, there is no debate when it comes to whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not.) Especially when you think of all the hard work that actually went into creating the dictionary, back in the day, and the legitimate etymology behind most words.

And really, are any of these slang words something you need to look up in a dictionary? Isn’t that what Urban Dictionary is for, not the more respected Oxford or Webster? Dictionaries are there to give the basic meaning of words. If you’re not really sure what it means to be opprobrious, you look it up. (I’ll give you this one: “expressing scorn or criticism.”) It’s not something someone made up to sound like they’re up on the latest trends; it comes from Latin and uses prefixes and suffixes endowed with specific meaning.

Boring, you say? Well, your new word will bore all your stylish friends to tears next year.

Sometimes looking up basic words you think you already know is also a useful reminder; you might learn something. The problem is, many of the latest words or terms are basically made up on the basis of being at a loss for words and not bothering to look up already existing words or string a few existing words together to match what you are trying to say. Change is good; dumbing down, not so much.

There’s so much gray area in all of this; the debate could be endless (and probably is, on social media). It’s understandable to want to keep the dictionary relatable to the people, not stuffy and detached from everyday life.

What’s the answer? Well, on Christmas break I noticed my 12-year-old nephew making excessive metaphorical use of the word “garbage,” obviously something all his friends are doing too. It’s understandable for his age; I remember the trendy words and phrases when I was his age, used ad nauseum by adolescents who hadn’t yet grasped the concept that less is more. I guess all I can say is, maybe some adults should evaluate whether they are still in middle school when it comes to language and its trends, or whether it’s better to just use words on the simple basis of saying what you mean. Then, I feel, a lot of these issues would disappear.

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