You can almost look it up

28 May

So “adorkable”* hasn’t quite made the dictionary yet. Nor has “vaguebooking”**. But if you’re worried about that, you can go and vote for their inclusion now at Collins’s new social media initiative, #twictionary. Quickly – last day today.

The idea that lexicographical decisions might be put to public approval is a striking one. As points out, a Twitter-based “vote” for new entries into a major British-English dictionary is obviously vulnerable to pranks and ballot-stuffing. Collins is offering a controlled shortlist of entries rather than inviting open submissions, but even so, the risks are obvious. It is, to say the least, controversial.

But then, new entries into the dictionary always are. Every year, it seems, lexicographers publicise a fresh crop of approved neologisms, to the delight of the media and the anger of traditionalists, and the always-simmering debate over what’s happening to the language boils up again.

Sticklers rage against what they see to be an abdication of judgment in the face of faddishness. Lexicographers defend their position robustly. Dictionaries, they explain, record language rather than defining it: those who compile them are not authority figures or controversialists, just messengers. As Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster writes:

“A reporter suggested this week that adding new words like selfie might be a pitch for the young and the hip – but why not assume instead that such words are entered for the benefit of those people who have never used them? Our target demographic includes all speakers of English.”

But behind the harrumphing grammarians on one side and the (sometimes inflammatory) publicity from dictionary publishers on the other, the debate does reveal an awkward truth about the nature of dictionary lexicography: that it can never be quite as flexible as the language it seeks to describe.

Tom Freeman, The Stroppy Editor, writes approvingly about the American usage guru Bryan Garner’s language change index. As words come, go and mutate, Garner records their acceptability for formal or informal use on a five-point sliding scale, from 1 (Rejected) to 5 (Accepted). On their way up and down the scale, words move through stages 2 (Widely Shunned), 3 (Widespread, But …) and 4 (Ubiquitous, But …). As a system, it’s not without faults. But it does, as The Stroppy Editor says, represent a truth about language change: that it fluctuates; that it progresses slowly over time; that a lot of words hover for years in the awkward border zone between formality and informality.

Dictionaries don’t represent that truth so well. Being “in the dictionary” is a binary state: you’re either in or you’re out. There is no sliding scale. Once an entry is inserted, of course it can be noted as “informal”, “vulgar”, “chiefly US” – anything to indicate qualified acceptability. But when a new word makes its debut, the fact remains that it’s now in the dictionary, and last year it wasn’t. Whether it happens through statistical weight of usage or simply a preference for novelty, it’s hard not to perceive that moment as a watershed.

Garner’s index has no watersheds: all five transitions are gentle. Dictionaries can never emulate it; when it comes to new words, they must put up with being perceived as having jumped straight from stage 1 to stage 5 (even if, perhaps, all they have done is jump from stage 3 to stage 4). The all-or-nothing nature of dictionary inclusion enhances the illusion of endorsement, and it’s that illusion that sets the pitchforks waving.

So maybe that’s the reason Collins has decided to turn to social media?  If you’re going to take the plunge, it might soothe the critics if you can point out that you asked for a show of hands first.

 * Socially awkward in an endearing way

** Posting worrying but cryptic status updates on Facebook as a strategy to gain attention


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