Is that even a word? Is it in the dictionary?

“That isn’t a word: it isn’t in the dictionary!” is heard all too frequently.

There are two problems with statements like this:

  • There is no such thing as THE dictionary; there are many different dictionaries, and no two lists of words are alike.
  • Dictionaries can’t be instantly updated, even in this internet age. Dictionaries are supposed to be records of any usage that lasts, any usage that isn’t ephemeral.

The primary authority is, of course, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), so you’re probably wondering what new words and phrases they’ve added this year. (You are, aren’t you?) Go and read their entire blog post on the subject; it’s surprisingly lively and unsurprisingly informative. I’ll comment here on a few bits and pieces.

First, though, be warned that the word “English” really means English. It’s not that they ignore Americanisms — far from it, but the base orientation is English, not American or Canadian or any other version of the language. This is clearly an issue that they have been working hard to address:

Our coverage of varieties of English from specific regions and across the world has also been expanded, including the Sri Lankan ambalama, a simple building used as a rest house or shelter for travellers; bunny hug, a Canadian term (particularly common in Saskatchewan) for a hooded sweatshirt; sumphy, a Scottish adjective meaning either ‘stupid’ or ‘sullen’; entries for two Indian film-making centres known as Tollywood; a borrowing from Irish, angishore, meaning a weak, pitiable, or poverty-stricken person, now chiefly found in Newfoundland dialect in the reanalysed form hangashore, to refer to a person too lazy or cowardly to go to sea; and the Liverpudlian insult arlarse.

Recent updates to OED have added items such as bare, butters, and wasteman, words that are often regarded as distinctive features of Multicultural London English, a variety of English most strongly associated with young people in London, and which combines elements of local slang with international influences, one of which is singled out in the colloquial (and depreciative) name Jafaican. Entries for both names, as well as the abbreviation MLE, are published today.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at my second and third tasks: listing a few examples of words that I could have expected to be added to the OED, and words that are a surprise. Here are some of the words on the list that could have been expected:

  • anchor baby (sigh)
  • apology tour (likewise)
  • arancini (just had some from Wegman’s the other day)
  • cryptocurrency (of course)
  • fake news (sigh again)
  • poke (the Hawaii rice bowl)

Finally, a few surprises (at least to me):

  • angels’ share (huh?)
  • chillax (well, yes)
  • Cobb salad (that’s new???)
  • Manhattanhenge (cool)

Now you should read the entire article.

Categories: Linguistics