Long before Oxford Dictionaries named the tears-of-joy emoji 2015’s “word” of the year, the language grumps were grumbling about the downfall of the written word. Dictionary.com had recently sanctioned “fleek” and “yaaas” — three a’s. Merriam-Webster had officially welcomed “wtf” and “nsfw” into its fold. “Bae” and “bezzy,” “YOLO” and “wahh,” “fur baby” and “mkay” — hardly a month goes by without one of the world’s most reputable dictionaries trumpeting some tidbit of Internet slang.
“Don’t get butthurt about our bants!” reads a recent press release from Oxford Dictionaries — the same Oxford Dictionaries that traces its roots back to the parlors of London intellectuals in the 19th-century.
Dictionaries have always added new words, of course; if they didn’t, they’d be useless. But skeptical philologists are correct in observing that the pace has gotten faster, the incubation times shorter, and the neologisms frequently more “ridic.”
As always, you can blame the Internet.
“The lifecycles of words are infinite,” said Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “But the cycle has changed, and it’s now quite quick.”
We’ve long known, of course, that the Internet and the mess of technologies we use to access it shape the way we communicate. Less discussed, but equally important, is how the Internet has changed the institutions documenting, codifying and endorsing the language.
Historically, dictionaries have been written by teams of people called lexicographers, who pore over thousands of pages of printed materials looking for new words (and new uses of old ones). Today, lexicographers still define words, of course — they just have totally different methods for going about it.
Most of the major dictionaries, including Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com subscribe to data services that bundle news articles, blogs posts, forum updates, status messages, site comments and a whole lot of other data streams into a massive dump that basically sums up how the Internet’s talking. At Oxford Dictionaries, Martin explains, that back-end technology includes a tool that graphs how many times a new word has been used, and over what period: if it spikes, it’s a meme; if it fizzles, it’s a stunt; if it goes up and stays up, it might just be worth adding to the “definitive record of the English language.”
There are other listening posts, too. At Merriam-Webster, lexicographers keep a close eye on what trends in user searches. At Dictionary.com, they scrutinize the searches that turn up a “did you misspell that?” page: Often, said Jane Solomon, a Dictionary.com lexicographer, those misspellings are actually new words. And because online editions have no space constraints or unwieldy publishing schedules, there’s little cost to adding them.
“Words are simply more discoverable now,” Solomon said. “Words that pop up in small communities, or among friends on forums, are now publicly available to lexicographers.”
The looming issue for dictionaries, however — and the existential threat to their survival long-term — is whether those words, once added to the dictionary, will ever be discoverable to users.
The dictionary industry, such as one exists, has not been immune to greater shake-ups across the publishing world. Sales of reference books plummeted 37 percent between 2007 and 2014, the earliest and most dramatic downturn in the nonfiction category. Online, even the best-established dictionaries have watched upstart Urban Dictionary and behemoth Google claw into their territory.
The vast majority of dictionary-users today don’t crack open the latest Merriam-Webster, or even type m-w.com into their address bar, but simply Google the meaning of the word they want. Since August 2013, when Google’s OneBox stopped linking to dictionary sites, the search engine has handily trapped word-searchers within its own, proprietary web: Search “define” and any English word, and it will surface a definition on the top of the results page, without the need to ever actually click.
According to SimilarWeb, a digital insights firm, desktop traffic to the largest online dictionaries has fallen steadily since then: In the past year, Oxford is down 8.5 percent; Dictionary.com is down 10.2, and Merriam-Webster, the most conservative of the bunch, has a third less traffic now than it had just 14 months ago.
“Dictionary publishing, whether in print or digital, has always been a highly competitive enterprise,” the dictionary said in a statement. “We recognize that some people will be satisfied with the information that can be found on the Google results page, but we also know that millions more come in search of more and richer information.”
Information on words like “fleek” and “yaaas,” perhaps — which may not have made the cut in the past. While lexicographers at M-W said they adhered to the old-school criteria — is the word used widely? Has it stuck around? Is the usage meaningful? — that standard isn’t interpreted quite so strictly across the board. Now, said Solomon of Dictionary.com, she’s very comfortable adding a word that “turns out to be a viral meme” or Internet joke.
In the coming year, her publication will switch to a monthly word-addition schedule — a change that Oxford hopes to make soon, as well. In a future world, Martin suggests, dictionaries could update as frequently as Buzzfeed’s lesser verticals.
“If we have information about words that people are interested in, then we should publish it,” she said.
This is a case that Martin’s made before: once over the word “rando,” which she strongly felt deserved an entry of its own; more recently over the tears-of-joy emoji, Oxford Dictionaries’ chosen 2015 “word.” When Martin first heard the pictograph pitched in a meeting of the Word of the Year committee, she had reservations: emoji are demonstrably not words, she felt. Picking it would represent some kind of elemental violation.
And yet, as the debate wore on, Martin found herself warming up to the pro-emoji case: After all, people are using emoji like words, regardless of what the grammar books technically say.
“It’s supposed to get people thinking about the fact that language is not set in stone,” she said. “Language is changing all the time.”
It’s just that, unless the dictionary updates, we don’t always notice.
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