The King’s is dead, long live…

If you’re not in the habit of skimming dictionaries, you might be surprised to find – upon the occasion of future skimming – the inclusion of new verbiage, notably:

  • Tramp stamp (a tattoo on a woman’s lower back),
  • Bromance (a close but non-sexual relationship between two men), and
  • Cougar (an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man).

Oxford University Press USA, which publishes the heretofor – and hereafter, no longer – august New Oxford American Dictionary, has shoe-horned nearly 2,000 new words, phrases, and meanings into the book. Reports the London-based Guardian newspaper:

A host of new meanings for old words have also made it into the 2,000-plus page dictionary, last updated in 2005, from nimrod (“an inept person) to pimp (to make something “more showy or impressive”) and rock: “she was rocking a clingy little leopard-skin number”. In the words of the newly added phrase which is “used as a rhetorical expression of approval or satisfaction”: what’s not to like?

In short: everything. Words are important because they allow us to communicate with one another. We also think in words, and evidence strongly suggests people who know more words think more clearly and efficiently – that is, better – than people who know fewer. Changing and re-arranging the meanings of words weakens our ability to communicate with one another because we are no longer assured of a shared language in which to communicate. It’s like playing cards with people who disagree over whether an ace is worth one point, or eleven: you can’t play the game if everybody doesn’t agree on the rules.  

Noah Webster, who first publishd his eponymous compilation of the American-English language in 1828, understood the necessity of consistency in language. A new biography of the lexicographer, The Forgotten Founding Father (by Joshua Kendall; Putnam, $26.95), describes his contribution: “forever unifying the world’s most ethnically diverse nation with a common language.” But as that commonality of language evaporates – or is disemboweled by the illiterati – that necessary unity begins to disintegrate.

(In addition to all that, the message inherent in incorporating oddball new words for no reason but their popular overuse is: go ahead, break the rules. If enough people break them often enough, they won’t be rules anymore. If enough people sold drugs, would selling drugs become legal? Of course not (we hope). Rules are rules for a reason, and that reason has nothing to do with popularity.)

Editor’s note: Another problem with the incorporation into dictionaries of modern “words” is that they are, in the majority, slang. Who will be responsible for cleaning out the dictionary in ten years when “cougar” and “pimp” have gone – and they will go – the way of “rad” and “gnarly”?

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