Updating the Dictionary Is Not the End of the World

It’s that time of year. New words have been added to OxfordDictionaries.com, and the internet has lost its collective shit, again. Is this the downfall of society as we know it? Of course not. Updating the dictionary is a good thing, and here’s why we should be happy about the changes.

Dictionaries are a reference tool.

The whole point of a dictionary is to help people learn the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. Our language is constantly evolving, so dictionaries have to evolve to keep up. That means adding new words when it becomes clear that they’ve entered wide usage for a somewhat extended period of time. A good dictionary must be a neutral document; if editors left out words that they simply didn’t like, no one would be able to look up the word “moist.” Of course, that doesn’t mean every disgusting sex move on Urban Dictionary should be included in reputable dictionaries, because let’s face it, a sizable portion of phrases on that site were likely invented purely as foul jokes and will never enter the public consciousness. But dictionaries should absolutely define popular terms that a large segment of the population uses.

People need safe places to look up difficult topics.

When words do become popular and you want to make sure you’re using them correctly, it’s nice to be able to turn to a site that will tell you what the word really means instead of having to wade through a dozen “definitions” written by bored dipshits trying to see who can come up with the most disgusting and misogynistic sample sentences. As of this writing, the most popular search term on Oxford’s US dictionary is cisgender, which they define quite clearly and concisely as:

Denoting or relating to someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds with the gender assigned to them at birth. Compare transgender.

The top Urban Dictionary definition of cisgender is so offensive, immature, and wrong; I’m not even linking to it. We need reputable sites to provide non-biased definitions of unfamiliar concepts.

It isn’t stupid to want to understand current slang.

Slang has always been the target of ridicule from people who picture themselves as superior to the common rabble. I don’t want to pick specific random strangers out for ridicule, but if you look at the people grousing on Twitter about how this “stupid” update is a sign of “the demise of humanity,” they use slang in their plenty of tweets, apparently without irony. (Also, a fair number of them are wearing fedoras in their profile pics, but that’s another story.) You can’t be well-educated about the world we live in if you refuse to learn even the most basic definitions of popular concepts. I’ve learned quite a few new words today; some are slang particular to British English, so there’s no real reason I’d have heard them before, but others I’d seen plenty of times and had only guessed at meanings based on the context. Now I won’t sound foolish if I try to use the ones I’d guessed incorrectly about.

The update included more than just slang terms, anyway.

While most headlines have focused on manspreading, awesomesauce, and butthurt, the Oxford Dictionaries blog post lists plenty of other words that have also been added. Brexit and Grexit have been used in discussions about the European Union for several years. Mx dates back to the 1970s and has become increasingly popular as a gender-neutral alternative to Mr. or Mrs. They’ve also added some new business jargon, because lord knows no one understands that shit intuitively.

This update does NOT affect the OED.

Purists worried about the sanctity (or maybe just the weight) of the Oxford English Dictionary can rest easy, as the current changes only apply to Oxford’s free website. Of course, that hasn’t stopped countless headline writers for legit news sites (that should damn well know better) from conflating the website with the OED, but they’re totally separate documents. (I’d also love to know where so many of them got the idea that only 23 new words were added; the real number is somewhere over 1,000 as best I can tell.) Many of the latest crop of words will probably eventually get promoted to the OED, but not yet. And that will be okay too, since it serves as a record of our evolving language and it can’t do that without adding new words that enter our vocabulary.

Even if some of the words are kinda silly, who cares?

Yeah, maybe some slang words are kind of ridiculous, and maybe some will fall out of favor fairly quickly. Plenty of words that were already in the dictionary are ridiculous and outdated too. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to establish definitions for them, especially in the limitless space of the internet, because people still want to know what they mean. (A cynic might point out that these quarterly updates likely do quite a bit to boost site traffic and therefore ad revenue, but that doesn’t invalidate the concept of adding words as they become widespread. And they deserve to make money somehow for providing the information without charging for it.)

With all the complaining, at least one guy is happy.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

2 thoughts on “Updating the Dictionary Is Not the End of the World”

  1. I – I love you. This article is all sorts of awesomesauce. I love the OED (I used to love lying on the living room floor flicking through our OED with the big magnifying glass) but I also love seeing recognition for the evolution of language.

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