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Changes in The English Dictionary? Don’t Vom, It’s Buzzworthy!

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By Jack Lynch, senior associate dean, Rutgers-Newark Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Lynch is an expert on the English language and author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park (2010) and editor of  Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (2003).

 

Dictionaries have been getting more than their share of attention over the last few weeks.

On August 12, someone noticed Google’s dictionary says literally is “used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true,” which caused him to tweet, “We did it guys! We killed English!”

Then on the 28th, Oxford Dictionaries Online added dozens of new words, including selfie, squee, badassery, srsly and, just two days after Miley Cyrus’s headline-grabbing VMA performance, twerking. (The timing was a coincidence, since Oxford’s release was planned long before.)

Pundits and finger-waggers have been hyperventilating ever since, agonizing that ignorance and pop culture are murdering the English language.

The doomsayers should chill—a sense recognized by Oxford (“calm down and relax”) and Merriam-Webster (“calm down, go easy”). Dictionary writers—lexicographers—are the reporters of the English language, not its opinion-page editors. They include words in their dictionaries when people use them, but they don’t decide whether words are good or bad. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t stop people from using new words.

Reporting on a new word isn’t the same as authorizing or blessing it, and it’s certainly not the same as mandating it. No one can force you to use literally figuratively, just as no one can force you to squee in delight at twerking.

So don’t worry about the English language, which will continue developing whether or not dictionaries try to change its course. It’s been doing just fine for 1,500 years already, and it’s certain to outlast us all.

So chill. Srsly.