Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The word twerking got quite a workout recently, first with Miley Cyrus's performance at the Video Music Awards, then with Oxford's announcement that they'd be including the word in their online dictionary. According to our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, some people were as shocked by the second as the first. He's been thinking about how dictionaries add new words and wonders if these days, is it anything goes?

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Evidently it was quite fortuitous. Just a couple of days after the Video Music Awards, Oxford Dictionaries Online released its quarterly list of the new words they were adding. To the delight of the media, there was twerk at the top, which gave them still another occasion to link a story to Miley Cyrus's energetic hijinks.

And why not add twerk? It's definitely a cool word, which worked its way from New Orleans bounce music into the linguistic mainstream on the strength of its expressive phonetics, among other things. It won't linger. The names of dance styles rarely do. But we'll have a historical record of it in the section reserved for forgotten, forbidden dances, along with lambada and turkey trot.

All the dictionaries periodically release a list of their new words, most of them provocatively cute and fleeting. Chambers Dictionary announces they've got mocktail. Merriam's counters with mancave. Collins includes squadoosh -Italian-American slang that means zilch. And Oxford's recent list included selfie, fauxhawk and the exclamations derp and squee. Not to mention the abbreviation SRSLY, as in seriously.

If you haven't picked up on any of these yet, I wouldn't worry. None of them are likely to outlive your hamster. True that dictionaries are also adding durable new items like cloud computing, systemic risk, and baseball's walk-off, but it's the ephemeral and faddish ones that generate the most arresting media headlines: It's Official, Oxford Declares Selfie a Real Word.

The dictionaries themselves disavow any official role in defining a real word; these are just items we've been noticing a lot, they say. But they know perfectly well that the only reason the announcements get picked up is that people still believe that dictionaries are gatekeepers whose inclusion of a word confers approval. There was a time when dictionaries were expected to restrict themselves to words that had reputable literary credentials.

Back in 1961, Merriam Webster set off a cultural firestorm for opening the columns of its new unabridged to parvenus like litterbug, wise up, and yacky. Critics accused Merriams of subversion and sabotage. And the New York Times charged that the dictionary was accelerating the deterioration of the language. But modern lexicographers don't need to provide a literary pedigree for new items like mwha-ha-ha-ha, which Oxford defines as the cackling laughter uttered by a villainous character in a cartoon.

And while those inclusions can still trigger a few indignant squeals, the media are rarely so uncool as to object. When the OED added some texting abbreviations a couple of years ago, the Times ran an editorial headed: OMG, OED, LOL, and applauded Oxford for what it called an affirmation of the plasticity of the English language. That shift in attitudes began in the '60s when dictionaries began to draw more of their words from the newly respectable genres of popular culture.

But it's the Internet that has really opened things up. For the word nerds who write dictionaries it's a new dawn and bliss to be online. The Internet seems to put the whole of the language at your fingertips, effacing all the old boundaries in the process. Public and private, formal and casual, highbrow and low, the Internet is like a storm surge that churns it all up and dumps it in everybody's front yard.

This is not your grandfather's English language, that stream of the great tradition with rows of folio dictionaries protecting its banks. As people are always saying, the language is a living, growing thing. But then so is Houston. It's all good. I agree. But looking over the new word lists, I can't help thinking, is that it? Seriously? A language is just the things we want to say and if you took those lists as representative, there's never been an age whose conversation was as crass and trifling as ours is.

But the problem isn't with the language itself but the window we're seeing it through. In its very abundance, the Internet turns out to be as selective a filter as the old dictionaries ever were. It foregrounds the stunt words cooked up by the media, the marketers and the techies, the portmanteau blends like jeggings, appletini and splog. It amplifies the language of the very young.

That's partly because they're more inventive but also because they dominate the online conversation and because everybody wants to know what they're saying at the cool kid's table. At the same time, the Internet gives short shrift to the language of whole populations who don't happen to transact their conversations on Reddit or Tumblr.

And the fascination with novel words tends to eclipse the subtle changes in the meanings of old ones, which are often more consequential. That's where you find the most striking omissions. The OED still doesn't have an entry for the modern meaning of demonize, as in they demonize the bankers. And it still defines a couple as a man and woman united by love or marriage.

And no dictionary I know of has an entry for slur, as in racial slur, to refer to a word that disparages somebody on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender. That use of slur goes back half a century. But it doesn't jump out at you the way novelties like squadoosh and twerk do. What we get from the Internet isn't a Google Earth view of the entire language - it's more like a screenshot of its Twitter feed.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.