Angles: Do words like “twerk” and “selfie” belong in the Oxford Dictionaries Online?

Evolving language’ needs updates


Matt Housiaux

Each new dictionary revamp and rerelease instigates yet another war of the words. In 1961, the inclusion by Webster’s Third of “irregardless” and a copious catalog of curse words ensconced east coast intellectuals. This year, Oxford Dictionary’s lexicographic codification of such bizarre internet jargon as “twerk” and “selfie” is providing the obligatory controversy.

Dictionaries themselves appear to be weathering a tenacious identity crisis. In the internet and information age—one of almost instantaneous cultural dissemination—they are trebly crunched between their traditional role as academic authority, a more recent evolution to chronicling historical changes of English vernacular, and a very prescient need to demonstrate relevancy.

While there is certainly a philosophical undergirding to this methodological tilt-a-whirl, the need for Oxford, Merriam Webster, and others to keep their names circulating in the 24 hour news cycle might weigh inordinately on their selection process. Taking their cues from a plethoric lineup of pop star disasters—Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus to name two—the dictionary industry’s present ethos may be that any and all publicity is innately good publicity.

The unfortunate truth of this dilemma is that this mindset may be wholly justified. With the whole print industry—newspapers, books, but unfortunately not informational pamphlets from highly motivated political and religious interest groups—teetering between illustrious past and potentially nonexistent future, all recourse seems limited to either fossilization or a drastic attempt to “get relevant,” and to do so by any means necessary.

For newspapers and book publishers, any sort of major public scandal usually results in a tremendous loss of money, so corporate belt-tightening and digital conversion have been their across-the-board practice.

Dictionaries, however, are such emblems of unquestioned respectability in the public subconscious (a status which few people really respect much by this point) that Oxford, Merriam Webster, and other companies employing large numbers of ancient wordsmiths can afford to use shock in their favor.

Granted, shock at the level of “twerk” and “selfie” registers more as tenuous amusement than would, say, the adoption of a dictionary mascot or the performance of a cultish ritual in which outmoded words are sacrificed in favor of their replacements by graying men and women, each clad in a bow tie or cable knit sweater.

However, this testy trigonometry of rebellion does legitimately succeed as a promotional tactic. It additionally sparks a much-needed, if generally brief, debate in the everyday world over the staying power of words and what is truly wanted and desired out of those who preside over them. Because dictionaries and the evolving language discussed within are integral to the heritage of the world and its future, they should not be condemned for a certain degree of exhibitionism from time to time. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it, baby.”

Oxford should omit Internet lingo



What makes a word a word? The recurrent controversy is brewing once again in response to the inclusion of “srsly,” “twerk,” and numerous other new entries in the Oxford Dictionaries Online.

While much of the outrage has arisen from confusion between the online database and the historical Oxford English Dictionary, which is updated much more conservatively, it does prompt a worthwhile debate on the legitimacy of such young terms. Should the abbreviations of textspeak be distinctly recognized? What about the lingo of potentially short-lived social media (e.g., “hashtag”)?

With the increasingly bottom-up development of Internet terminology, should we even have a top-down reference like Oxford, or do these updates have no significant purpose to the rapidly evolving lexicon?

Dictionaries have always responded to the trends of usage, but there was a time when they served to standardize those trends for subsequent generations. When the evolution of the language was slow, the model of the Oxford English Dictionary alone sufficed. At any given time, the words in use could be expected to remain relevant for decades.

But now, the volume and speed of communication on the Internet is generating novel arrangements of letters at an unprecedented rate, and sending them around the world faster than any standardizing committee can track. Even the cutting-edge Oxford Dictionaries Online, which updates quarterly and adds about one thousand new entries per year, is chasing behind the linguistic advancement rather than leading it. There is no competing with the blogging world and the meme factories. Furthermore, many of the new terms are prone to dying out as fast as they appeared, leaving a vast graveyard of mere blips on the English timeline.

That does not mean that attempts to record these developments are pointless, or that Oxford should retreat to its old historical function. But I would propose that sources like the Urban Dictionary (where the most obscure of entries can be posted, and then voted as accurate or inaccurate by visitors to their pages) are better suited to the current situation, and that an intellectually respected one, like Oxford, might do well to treat phenomena of the unregulated Internet separately from those of speech, journalism, academic publications, and the like. Media like Twitter create their own forms of communication, which need not be codified outside of their borders. A dictionary that includes only carefully selected terms might as well include only those that would be accepted in formal communication, because the rest will both outpace its editors and be primarily used by those who will not particularly care about the dictionary’s obsolete verdict.

If Oxford limited its efforts to that sort of model, one less ambitious but also more useful to a segment of the population, then we would have sources representing each level of the language at our disposal: some for historical usages, some for the well-established modern ones, and many for the constant stream of clever creations coming from the Internet. It’s worth a try. Srsly.