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  • A Compendium of Linguistic Failure: Dictionaries Losing It

A Compendium of Linguistic Failure: Dictionaries Losing It

One of the most horrific things I heard at university was linguistics tutor spouting the idea that we need to embrace changes to our language as though it is an evolution. We should see words like ‘LOL’ (not a word) or ‘LMFAO’ (not a word)  not as hideous abortions of taste, but as a reflection of cultural change as we begin to broaden our vocabulary to describe our experience. In theory, this sounds all very nice  – we’re getting more inventive with objects, so perhaps we should be so with words – but then you hit a word like ‘pwn’, which is based upon a spelling error, and it all becomes a little too dirty and a little too real. And there is nothing  in any linguistic theory book that can excuse the title of the Black Eyed Peas song ‘I Gotta Feeling‘.

This song name typifies everything that is wrong with the way people are using language now. I can only assume they meant to call it ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ rather than using the accepted form of ‘gotta’, which would make their song title ‘I Got To Feeling’. This latter and correct expansion of the song title not only makes no sense but also increases my personal hatred of both English and ‘music’ by roughly 7,000%.

‘But, Felice,’ I hear you say. ‘Without linguistic playfulness, we wouldn’t have words like ‘besmirched’, ‘accused’, and ‘lackluster’.’ To which I respond that the Black Eyed Peas did not name their song ‘I Got To Feeling’ because they wanted to describe something extraordinary and needed to invent a new phrase. They did it because dictionaries accept any old rubbish, and no-one cares about precision in meaning or expression anymore.

Welcome to 2013, where words accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary now include:

  • mwahahaha, exclamation: used to represent laughter, esp. manic or cackling laughter such as that uttered by a villainous character in a cartoon or comic strip. [this is about as much a word as I am an Olympian, ie: not even a little bit.]
  • ridic, adj.: ridiculous (abbrev.). [could equally be an abbrev. for ridicule, though, couldn't it?]
  • lolz, pl. n.: fun, laughter, or amusement. [when 'lol' isn't descriptive enough]

Later this year look out for ‘vomatorium‘ and ‘obvs‘, because obviously my autocorrect is more discerning than these jokers. Maybe they could throw in ‘fungasm‘.

In their desire to keep pace with Urban Dictionary and not look like foosty old bozos, dictionaries have opened their doors to the masses. But, as any person who takes the tube knows, more stuff generally means more bad stuff. The germs of zeitgeist have infected the archaic institution I like to call ‘standards’ and is wreaking havoc.

I know that pointing out the failings of language gatekeepers won’t fix the problem, but you can actually make a difference.

Instead of vowing the change the publishing industry or save bookshops, this year I urge you to make a new year’s resolution you can keep – resolve to think before you speak or type, and use words and phrases that make sense in the situation. Be precise in your meaning, put punctuation in the place where it goes,  and don’t cut corners. Because if we save publishing and allow phrases like ‘I Gotta Feeling’ to successfully masquerade as sensical, we might as well throw all our beloved books on a bonfire and light the match now.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.
  • Christopher

    While I fully support the gist of the article, there is one obvious error – you refer to the OED, but link to the ODO. The ODO (Oxford Dictionary Online) focuses on current English (modern meanings and uses of words) – you could call it an Oxford Dictionaries endorsed Urban Dictionary. While we might cringe every time we encounter some of these “words”, we can sleep easier knowing that they will probably be deleted as soon as they no longer feature in popular use.

    The OEDs list of new words for 2013 is very different. My only concern is this line from the Oxford Dictionaries FAQ – “If you are looking for practical help or advice on how to use English in writing and speaking today, then ODO will provide you with the information you need.”.

  • Christopher

    While I fully support the gist of the article, there is one obvious error – you refer to the OED, but link to the ODO. The ODO (Oxford Dictionary Online) focuses on current English (modern meanings and uses of words) – you could call it an Oxford Dictionaries endorsed Urban Dictionary. While we might cringe every time we encounter some of these “words”, we can sleep easier knowing that they will probably be deleted as soon as they no longer feature in popular use.

    The OEDs list of new words for 2013 is very different. My only concern is this line from the Oxford Dictionaries FAQ – “If you are looking for practical help or advice on how to use English in writing and speaking today, then ODO will provide you with the information you need.”.

    • http://twitter.com/FeliceTherese Felice Howden

      Cheers for that up Christopher, it actually does make me feel better to know this is in the ODO rather than the OED. A friend of mine had the same reaction re: you can just delete them later, which *is* a lot easier to do online than it is in print.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amhaner Adam Michael Haner

    Wow, this can’t be a serious article. The word ‘pwn’ may stem from a spelling error (I would like to see this cited as I doubt you fully understand its etymology), but it is actively used which makes it a word. People think it, say it, and write it. Like it or not, it’s a word.

    “I gotta feeling” isn’t a reflection of its grammar use. It’s a song name. And songs often take liberties with grammar, pronunciation, even spelling to make the desired language fit to a beat. I wouldn’t sing ” got a feeling” but “gotta feeling” because it fits better.

    My advice to you is to get off your high horse and stop fixating on errors you don’t understand. If you don’t like English, go speak something else.

    • http://twitter.com/FeliceTherese Felice Howden

      You’re partly right – this was theatrical over-reaction which I guess you would have to know me to get. Not amazing journalism. I do think that dictionaries are trying to compete in the digital age in entirely the wrong way, though.

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