Reflections on the Oxford Dictionary and the New Standards of Language

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On August 28th, the Oxford Dictionary released its quarterly update of the newest words added to the dictionary. I always enjoy reading about the words that make it into the dictionary. The updates show us how society is changing. It’s a great way to track what’s going on culturally and what is on our radar as a society. But more recently, I have started to wonder what the decision-making mechanism is behind all of this because some of the words they’ve added, I personally would not categorize as actual words.

The big news this time around is the addition of the words “twerk” and “geek chic” to the dictionary. And while those words very rarely leave my lips and make their way into a conversation, I’ve accepted them as cultural norms. Honestly, “twerk” is getting attention right now simply because of the proximity of the dictionary update to the recent exploits of a certain former Disney starlet who chose to embrace her sexuality a bit on stage to the joy of some and to the disgust of others.

Whatever your opinion on twerking and who has the right to do said raunchy dance in public or private, there are a lot of other words in the new list that are of equal importance and you can see the definitions Oxford came up with for them all here. Looking through the list, I think the most significant thing to note is how many abbreviations for words are now to be formally recognized as actual words. I find this to be problematic and a bit distressing because a dictionary is known for prestige and the language that is appropriate for more formal communication—at least in the world of literary studies—and just as banal corporate jargon makes me cringe, I may now be forced to despair about the future of formal language and communication.

When I say formal communication, I am referring to letter writing or speaking in a business setting etc.. I know that as a society we have become less formal by nature. But I am a little old school and believe there is a very specific and divisive line between formal and informal communication, the situations where they are appropriate, and what language comprises them.

Social media, most emails and texting are considered informal forms of communication and are the primary ways that we communicate with people who are not directly in front of us. We have become a society that communicates primarily via technologies like the computer and smartphone and social media itself is reflective of this phenomenon. Because of the prominence of social media in our society, we have become a culture framed by limitations. These limitations multiply from social media sites like Twitter which reduce communication to 140 characters.

Texting also leads to this reduction of characters, even for people like me who are fond of the beauty of language. I hate typing or “swyping” on my smartphone and if there is an easily comprehensible abbreviation, I’ll use it. I’m a Millennial. I text a lot. And although I am given to using abbreviations, I don’t consider words like “vom” and “srsly” to be a part of the English language. And now, thanks to the Oxford Dictionary, these “words” are to be considered a formal part of the English language instead of a communicative subcultural phenomenon.

As a subculture, the slashing of more traditional words is acceptable. But when it’s brought into the mainstream, it causes a lot of problems. I have never considered these “words” to be appropriate substitutes in formal communication. Srsly doesn’t even have any vowels! But, if it’s part of the mainstream, shouldn’t it be taught in schools? One could almost assume so. Is “grats” going to show up on my potential future child’s spelling or vocab list? And how about “unlike”? This one is beyond grammatically incorrect. The standard is, of course, “dislike.” I can embrace “unlike” in reference to Facebook or other web activity, but the verification by the Oxford Dictionary really screws with the grammatical standard of the language and learners of English are just going to end up confusing the two of them. Srsly?

These words are like slang. And the fate of most of them will be as follows: their popularity will eventually wane and no one considered “cool” will use them any longer; just like rad, neato or boss. When was the last time you heard someone use the word boss in a context other than referring to an employer or manager? I can’t think of anything.

Language is a beautiful thing and while it is important to make it your own and to find your own voice, there are certain standards put forth and they have a purpose. When English was being standardized, they fashioned the rules to mimic the rules of Latin because Latin was the ideal and the standard to which others aspired. There is beauty to be found in language, even when you follow the rules. But when you butcher words for convenience and then decide to make them a standard, a great deal of harm is done and language becomes a mauled and lesser version of its former self.

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