Why Dictionaries Have Started Sanctioning Even the Dumbest Internet Slang

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

Why Dictionaries Have Started Sanctioning Even the Dumbest Internet Slang


Byline: Caitlin Dewey Washington Post

Long before Oxford Dictionaries named the tears-of-joy emoji 2015's "word" of the year, the language grumps were grumbling about the downfall of the written word.

Dictionary.com had recently sanctioned "fleek" and "yaaas" -- three a's. Merriam-Webster had officially welcomed "wtf" and "nsfw" into its fold. "Bae" and "bezzy," "YOLO" and "wahh," "fur baby" and "mkay" -- hardly a month goes by without one of the world's most reputable dictionaries trumpeting some tidbit of Internet slang.

"Don't get butthurt about our bants!" reads a recent news release from Oxford Dictionaries -- the same Oxford Dictionaries that traces its roots back to the parlors of London intellectuals in the 19th-century.

Dictionaries have always added new words, of course; if they didn't, they'd be useless. But skeptical philologists are correct in observing that the pace has gotten faster, the incubation times shorter, and the neologisms frequently more "ridic."

As always, you can blame the Internet.

"The life cycles of words are infinite," said Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. "But the cycle has changed, and it's now quite quick."

We've long known, of course, that the Internet and the mess of technologies we use to access it shape the way we communicate. Less discussed, but equally important, is how the Internet has changed the institutions documenting, codifying and endorsing the language.

Historically, dictionaries have been written by teams of people called lexicographers, who pore over thousands of pages of printed materials looking for new words (and new uses of old ones). Today, lexicographers still define words, of course -- they just have totally different methods for going about it.

Most of the major dictionaries, including Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com, subscribe to data services that bundle news articles, blogs posts, forum updates, status messages, site comments and a whole lot of other data streams into a massive dump that basically sums up how the Internet's talking. At Oxford Dictionaries, Martin explains, that back-end technology includes a tool that graphs how many times a new word has been used, and over what period: if it spikes, it's a meme; if it fizzles, it's a stunt; if it goes up and stays up, it might just be worth adding to the "definitive record of the English language."

There are other listening posts, too. At Merriam-Webster, lexicographers keep a close eye on what trends in user searches. At Dictionary.com, they scrutinize the searches that turn up a "did you misspell that?" page: Often, said Jane Solomon, a Dictionary.com lexicographer, those misspellings are actually new words. And because online editions have no space constraints or unwieldy publishing schedules, there's little cost to adding them.

"Words are simply more discoverable now," Solomon said. "Words that pop up in small communities, or among friends on forums, are now publicly available to lexicographers."

The looming issue for dictionaries, however -- and the existential threat to their survival long-term -- is whether those words, once added to the dictionary, will ever be discoverable to users. …

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