Language Flexibility: Adding Words to the Dictionary

.It’s that time of year again, when the dictionaries add new words and drop old ones.  *cue outrage*  I’m fucking tired of all your whining about this yearly tradition, so I’m going to explain exactly what this means and why the fuck it matters.

What Dictionaries Do

Believe it or not, dictionaries have been with us in one form or another since the Akkadian Empire, dating back to the 2000s BCE.  They’re handy, they allow us to improve our communication by providing our language (whatever that may be) a unified form to follow and they give us a set meaning for each and every word contained therein.  But as long there have been dictionaries, there have been people freaking out when words like “bae” and “cunt” get added to the pile.

I know this may come as an incredible shock, but language isn’t a cement pond.  It’s a raging river, a bubbling spring, a fucking flowing highway of methane-farting cars.  It’s an ever-moving, ever-changing, motherfucking living thing.  Language is people, too.

Don’t believe me?  There’s a reason they call Latin (and its ilk) a dead language.  It’s dead.  It has ceased to be.  It’s no more.  That’s not because no one uses it, though.  College students like younger versions of myself study it looking for higher wisdom, Catholics chant it in hopes of appealing to their Latin-speaking God, scholars teach it and decode it every day.  Latin is still used, it’s not like that flashlight-slash-radio you bought six years ago and hasn’t been taken out of the drawer since, but it doesn’t grow and change anymore — that’s why we don’t get yearly updates on new Latin words.

Because language is a living thing, it’s got to be tended.  That’s where the guardians of our dictionaries like the Oxford and Merriam-Webster come in.  They protect the sanctity of their dictionaries by refusing to allow just any combination of letters into the hallowed pages.  Contrary to your snobbish beliefs, they monitor these things very carefully and they know exactly when a word is ready for admission.

Grammar Nazis Be Damned

I know you Grammar Nazis are in fits over any changes to the accepted pile of words we can all use.  I know you don’t like the idea of losing words to disuse and adding in words and “text speak” that those uneducated, unwashed masses are using on social media.  I know you’re crying in your Cheerios right now.  And I fucking love it.

Do you know what a dictionary really is?  It’s like a yearbook for words.  Words don’t end up there because the dictionary keepers want people to start using them — it’s totally the opposite.  Words enter the dictionary after they’ve been given hard birth to by some unsuspecting person and they infect the masses like herpes.

As the word herpes gain more and more traction, really special algorithms that the dictionary folk use to track their use start going off all over Dictionary Central.  The alarms sound, red lights flash and everybody runs around in a panic with their arms up in the air — then they step out of my imagination and get back to work.

When words have been used a certain amount by a certain percentage of the population, it gets into the dictionary.  It’s really that simple.  It’s a word because we say it’s a word, not because we’re told it’s ok to use.  Language is really democratic in that way, so stop being such fucking hard asses.

English doesn’t respond to tough love.  Embracing the beauty and fragility of our language is the only way to truly understand it.  It’s sexy, it’s always new and it’s a really amazingly flexible thing.