Watch Your Words

25 Aug

One of the big stories on the interwebs today had to do with which words Merriam-Webster plans to add to its newest edition of the Collegiate Dictionary (another very popular story had to do with Rihanna snorkeling in a dress, but we’ll leave that thrilling piece of information for another day). Merriam-Webster’s new selections include bromance, helicopter parent and robocall, to name a few. It’s interesting to look at when these words were first recorded in the English language. Crowdsourcing apparently dates back to 2006, but “cougar” goes all the way back to the 18th century. Who knew? And why is it suddenly relevant enough to be part of the dictionary?

I went to a really interesting speech a few years ago by Erin McKean, famed lexicographer, former editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, and founder of the super cool online dictionary site Wordnik. She talked about the process for picking words, and how the art of creating dictionaries is a glimpse into what matters across different generations. Defining “standard language” is a pretty influential task when you really think about it. Adding a word to a dictionary is supposed to signify that it is important enough to the English language that we need to be able to define it on demand. That book contains the words that lexicographers expect us to want to use, need to use and try to use. Naturally our language isn’t limited to what’s within those book’s pages (or included in the online edition), but the goal of dictionary editors is to capture the essence of modern language. If you needed to understand what a word meant and couldn’t find it in a dictionary, chances are it’s something relatively recent. But then what about cougar? Why did it fail the relevancy test for centuries?

In unrelated but rather funny grammar news (you mean you don’t typically look for grammar news?), Old Navy is getting a lot of heat for designing, printing and selling a shirt that displays a classic grammatical error. As part of a new line centered on college and NFL teams, the company managed to print a shirt that says “Lets go Blue” instead of “Let’s go Blue.” Woops. Sorry, Michigan fans. Check it out here.

Note: WordPress’ spellchecker does not recognize bromance or robocall as words, but it does recognize crowdsourcing. And apparently, spellchecker. Curious.

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One Response to “Watch Your Words”

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  1. What a Year | Culture Cookies - May 27, 2012

    […] new things, seen new places. I’ve told you all about return policies, rambled on about word choice and waxed poetic about nostalgic brands.  It’s been a lot of fun, and I certainly […]

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