Woot! OED celebrates Concise centenary

It is 100 years since editors Henry and Frank Fowler produced the first version of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the smaller – and more portable – sibling of the gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary. Yesterday saw the announcement of the Concise’s 12th edition, which contains 400 new words among its 240,000 entries reflecting the changing nature of our language. (The larger OED records more than 600,000 words.)

To which I say ‘Hurrah!’ Or should that be ‘woot‘?

Five months ago I wrote this post about the March 2011 update to the all-encompassing OED, which introduced new words such as LOL (laugh out loud), dot-bomb (a failed internet company), muffin top (a protuberance of flesh above the waistband of a pair of trousers) and fnarr fnarr (a lecherous snigger) into the lexicon. It sparked quite a debate, drawing comments from over 100 people which ranged from those who agreed the dictionary should reflect the ongoing evolution of the English language to others who felt that acknowledging such words was the beginning of the end of civilisation itself. (I tend towards the former view.)

Certainly there is plenty for the naysayers to feel aggrieved about in this latest update, with words such as woot (an exclamation of elation, enthusiasm or triumph), jeggings (a cross between leggings and jeans) and noob (a contraction of ‘newbie’, meaning a novice or newcomer) finding their way into the Concise edition.

The new edition also introduces several words which reflect the inexorable march of technology. Less than eight years after the Wright brothers achieved the first powered flight, the original 1911 publication included both aeroplane and biplane (an aircraft with two sets of wings), innovations such as marconigram (a wireless message) and kinematograph (equipment producing moving pictures), and car-related words such as carburettor and motorist. At that time, though there was still no cinema, television or computer.

The 2011 edition adds textspeak (language characteristic of text messages, consisting of abbreviations, acronyms, initials, emoticons etc) and retweet (reposting a message posted by another user on Twitter). Less positively, it also acknowledges the 21st century phenomena of cyberbullying (the use of electronic communication to bully a person) and sexting (the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone).

Other new inclusions reflect societal trends and concerns, such as surveil (to keep a person or place under surveillance), domestic goddess (a woman with exceptional domestic skills, especially cookery) and mankini (a brief one-piece bathing garment for men, with a T-back). Eurgh.

As Angus Stevenson, the dictionary’s editor, says:

It’s how the dictionary has always worked – we get as much evidence as we can so we know it’s not just a small number of people using the word and it’s not going to disappear.

Many of these additions seem eminently sensible, reflecting words which are in increasingly common usage. Others which seem more outrageous (or faddy) will no doubt become commonplace (or redundant) within the next 10-20 years, just as new words have always done. For instance, none of these rather lovely words from the 1911 edition could ever be considered as being part of the average person’s vocabulary: brabble (a paltry noisy quarrel), foozle: (to do clumsily, bungle, make a mess of) or growlery (a place to growl in, and clearly a predecessor of ‘online forums’).

In several cases, existing entries have been altered to reflect the changing usage and meaning of long-established words. For instance, back in 1911 a blouse was a workman’s garment while a frock was a monk’s long gown. Both have taken on entirely different meanings over the years. The 12th edition continues this tradition, amending the definition of follower to include someone who is tracking a particular person or group on a social networking site and cougar to that of an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man. Oo er.

Overall, I’m still largely supportive of the changes to the dictionary because they represent the OED’s ongoing mission to reflect and record our evolving vocabulary rather than editorialise it. As I wrote back in March:

Is this influx of new words 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?

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.

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.

And on that note, I’m off to brush up on my textspeak. C U l8er m8. (That’s “see you later, mate” for those of you who, like me, still think in long-form writing.) Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below – but no cyberbullying, please. Okay?

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