Image: Chris Kindred

How Dictionary Editors Find Meaning in the Age of Internet Speak

Is it the modern lexicographer’s job to protect the English language, or to document it?

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Oct 3 2017, 4:00pm

Image: Chris Kindred

In September 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary, in publication since the 1880s, unceremoniously added a new sense to the definition of a once uncontroversial word: literally.

"adv. 1c. colloq.," it read. "Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense."

It took two years, but the internet eventually noticed. In March 2013, a group of Redditors discovered the amended entry during a debate in an otherwise unnoteworthy book thread. Along the way, participants learned that nearly all major dictionaries had added similar senses, which treated literally like a hyperbolic intensifier. Editors, it seemed, had finally caved to one of modern English's most infamous solecisms. American media picked up this revelation soon thereafter, and, by the end of the summer, the controversy had pummeled its way across the Atlantic.

That August, the Daily Mail chimed in with an article titled "You literally don't need to take 'literally' literally: After years of misuse the Oxford English Dictionary gives in and changes word's meaning." Within minutes, its comment thread devolved into a dirge, lamenting not only the death of the English language but of Western civilization itself. As one commenter complained, the capitulation of the OED—the so-called "definitive record of the English language" that currently encompasses 600,000 words—embodied a "good enough attitude," which had led to a noticeable "deterioration of our society."

Four years later, complaints like these remain common. A perception exists that careless millennials and social-media aficionados have laid siege to the English language and that modern dictionaries have failed to hold the line. "We'll put up with the shitty adolescent vernacular (or avoid Twitter and modern television shows)," one critic recently ranted beneath an article on the definition of literally on Merriam-Webster's Words at Play blog. "[But] do we really need [this] crap clogging up the dictionary?"

Put another way, in the internet age, is it the job of the lexicographer, who writes, edits, or otherwise tends to dictionaries, to protect the English language, or document it as it evolves?

"Human speech is always morphing along."

According to Emily Brewster, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, publisher of America's best-selling dictionary, this question stems from a fundamental misperception about the role of lexicography. Her job does involve helping readers avoid embarrassing misusage, Brewster tells me, though she neither sees this as her primary function, nor does she conflate evolution with vulgarity. "I can't speak for my colleagues," she says, "but I am not pained in the least when a use like sense 2 of literally finds its way into the dictionary. Lexicography requires a long view of the language. In our work, we are continually reminded that words change meaning over time."

Indeed, for millennia, shifts in meaning and pronunciation have served as prime movers in the evolution of language. Though print and literacy largely extinguished ancient philological and phonological processes capable of producing entirely new languages, communication by no means remains in stasis. "Human speech is always morphing along," says John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and author of Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still. "English in 500 or even 1,000 years will be recognizable as what we speak now, [but] sounds will be different in various ways, [and] many words will have different meanings, often in subtle ways."

It is the role of modern lexicographers, according to Brewster, to track these changes—to wade through a near-infinite pool of formal and informal discourse, and, in the process, differentiate fleeting trends from substantive shifts in usage. Whether these shifts are annoying or welcomed is inconsequential—once they reach critical mass, ubiquity eclipses controversy. "What was once shunned and disparaged," she says, "has a good chance of joining the ranks of the unremarkable."

As a prime example, Brewster points to the word "negotiate." In the early-20th century, journalists and orienteers began using the term as a verb meaning "to successfully travel along or over." Grammar pedants took great umbrage at this usage and soon brought their fight to the mainstream media. A writer's use of negotiate in a 1904 edition of The Saturday Review inspired one critic to fire off a letter to the editor. "Surely no purpose ornamental or useful can be served by this unwarranted extension of the sense of a familiar word," he sassed. "Do the spoilers of English negotiate the English dictionary?" Despite similar complaints elsewhere, the new sense rapidly gained currency and eventually clawed its way into acceptance.

According to Craig Leyland, a new words editor at the OED, modern lexicographers do not make such decisions without careful consideration. To assess whether a new word or new sense deserves attention, editors employ technology that gives them unprecedented insight into the size, scale, and scope of its usage. For Oxford, this means probing a proprietary online corpus that contains over 2.5 billion words of "pulled-from-the-Internet English." This allows editors like Leyland to observe how speakers use individual words in real world settings, as well as to isolate prominent collocations and compounds.

"We examine each word, or sense, or compound to look at how long it has been in existence, and how often it has been used," he says. "There aren't any iron rules, but it would be extremely unlikely for us to add anything that doesn't yet have five years or so of history behind it." Adding that ten years is even better, Leyland relents that "some things, like tweet or Brexit, hit the language so fast and so hard we know they're going to be fixtures, and we certainly don't have to wait for ten years" to add them.

"I can't say I love every new word I come across."

Leyland believes that social media and globalization will only accelerate this process, as new words now ascend into popular usage within weeks or even days of coinage. Many of these terms will eventually meet the requisite standards for entry into major dictionaries.

To any purists cringing at this news, Brewster herself may serve as a source of inspiration. She admits that when she started at Merriam-Webster 17 years ago, she wasn't quite so open-minded. "I remember being a bit disdainful of chillax," she says. "It just seemed like a stupid coinage to me." With time, however, her horizons broadened. When charged to write an official definition for the word twerk, she took to the task with aplomb.

"I can't say I love every new word I come across," she says, "but I have true affection for new words generally. It's fun to see the language expand."

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