FYI: English language continues to evolve – OMG!

The folks over at the Oxford English Dictionary published their latest updates to the OED today, revising and adding to a language which already contains more than 600,000 recorded words.

Among the new inductees are some real corkers. Several modern day initialisms – abbreviations consisting of the initial letters of a name or expression – such as OMG (oh my God), LOL (laughing out loud), FYI (for your information), TMI (too much information), IMHO (in my humble opinion) and BFF (best friends forever) have been formally included for the first time.

Some of these initialisms have been in existence for longer than you might think. OED research shows that OMG was first used in 1917, FYI dates back to 1941 and LOL started out in 1960 as an abbreviation of ‘little old lady’. (No, I don’t know how it came to take on its modern form.)

Victoria Beckham is now in the OED. Sort of

Others have had a much faster journey into the OED. The acronym WAG (wives and girlfriends) was first coined in 2002 in relation to the partners of the England football team, but has rapidly passed both into common parlance and now into the dictionary. (Incidentally, as I discovered this morning, an acronym is defined as an initialism which is pronounced as a word rather than letter by letter. So there you go.)

This rash of new initialisms is of course a reflection of the new world of informal digital communications, whether it be the longer-form style of emails or online forums, or character-limited media such as SMS texts and Twitter, where brevity is at a premium.

Other food-related additions reflect a world of different cultures which is now more accessible than ever. Hence banh mi (a Vietnamese baguette-style sandwich), kleftiko (a Greek dish of slow-cooked lamb) and flat white (an Australian form of coffee in which foamed milk is poured over an espresso) are now officially recorded by the OED.

Then there are new terms relating to the world of business. So a dot-bomb is a failed internet company, while a dotted line describes an indirect reporting relationship.

And, as always, recently popularised figures of speech and slang expressions continue to be incorporated into our ever-evolving language. Among those which caught my eye in today’s update we have the wonderfully descriptive muffin top (a protuberance of flesh above the waistband of a pair of trousers), on the lash (engaged in a bout of drinking), cream-crackered (knackered, as in exhausted), fnarr fnarr (a lecherous snigger, for which we can blame Viz) and smack talk (boastful or insulting banter).

Is this influx of new words – some of which will pass out of fashion as quickly as they entered the common lexicon – a good thing? Of course it is. English is universally considered to be the richest spoken language in terms of number of words. That multiplicity of words allows us to separate fine nuances, and to provide clear, evocative descriptions of the world around us. Is that woman’s dress simply red, or is it crimson, burgundy, scarlet, blood-red, claret or perhaps even damask? And aren’t dot-bomb and muffin top wonderfully vivid yet economical descriptions?

The old fuddy-duddy in me wants to object to the inclusion of the likes of BFF and wassup (yes, seriously) in the most canonical record of the English language in existence. Meanwhile, the modernist in me recognises that language must always be a fluid thing. Where would we be if English was locked in a fixed state without the ability to introduce new words while others fall quietly into obsolescence? How would we describe PCs and CPUs? What cumbersome form of words would be required to explain the internet? Or a blog?

When Shakespeare couldn’t find the right word for something, he just made one up (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Indeed, such is the pace at which our inter-connected world changes, that it should be no surprise that our language continues to evolve with similar alacrity. New words and expressions should be cherished not cursed. After all, that William Shakespeare fellow invented new words – or converted verbs into nouns (and vice versa) – with regularity to serve his own purposes, many of which still exist in our contemporary vocabulary. It is thought that over 1,500 common words such as assassination, auspicious, bloody, fitful, invulnerable, obscene, road and suspicious were first used by the Bard. Not to mention expressions like ‘brave new world’ (The Tempest), ‘for goodness’ sake’ (Henry VIII), ‘hoist with his own petard’ (Hamlet), ‘star-crossed lovers’ (Romeo and Juliet), ‘pound of flesh’ (The Merchant of Venice) and ‘what the dickens’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. To paraphrase Twelfth Night, if new words be the food of language, play on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s TMI about this brave new world IMHO. I’m cream-crackered. Pass me my flat white, please.

For more information on the March 2011 OED update, click here.