Perhaps before we publish, or read, any more inane articles about lexicography, we might take a moment to reflect on what dictionaries are for.
One of the latest misguided (read: stupid) articles on the subject is by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post: "Oxford Dictionaries adds' twerk,; 'FOMO,' 'selfie,' and other words that make me vom." As the headline indicates, Oxford University press has gathered up a number of slang terms for the quarterly update of the Oxford Dictionaries Online*, and Mr. Dirda is not pleased with them.
Before we get to the lexicography, we might ask why Mr. Dirda thought we would be interested in his personal preferences in vocabulary. All of us, I imagine, have words we favor and words we avoid out of aesthetic preferences, but we don't imagine that the public is keen to be let in on them.
We might also wonder why Mr. Dirda was so eager to fall into the newspaper cliche of The Awful Way Those Young People Talk. Journalists go in for this every few years, about the way The Young are butchering English, and their weird clothes and loud music and degenerate carnality. (For the last, read: having more sex than I am.) I suppose it's one way to proclaim that one is no longer young, but why that would be of more interest to readers than one's individual preferences in vocabulary escapes me.
He also seems not to understand the point of slang. Slang is being generated all the time, by different groups, The Young prominent among them. It starts out as a code, an in-group language, and it loses its appeal for the young as soon as older people like Mr. Dirda come to understand it. It's ephemeral. Most of it fades away quickly, though a little will lodge in the language. Vaporing about it makes as much sense as throwing a hissy about the weather, which is equally changeable.
But we should be getting to the point, the point being that Mr. Dirda appears to be in the dark about what lexicographers are doing. Perhaps I can assist him. I figured out squee from context the first time I saw it. But FOMO** would have stymied me. I would have had to inquire somewhere about its meaning.
Lessee now, where might one go to find the meaning of an unfamiliar term? Maybe ... a dictionary?
What lexicographers do is intricate and time-consuming but straightforward: They try to establish the spellings, pronunciations, definitions, and etymologies of words as they appear in the language, in speech and writing. They will label individual items as slang or colloquial or objectionable, but they are not gatekeepers. They do not make language "official." They just want to be able to show you how people are using or have used words.
While we're straightening out the purpose of dictionaries, could we please stop referring to the "venerable" OED? As I remarked elsewhere, the Oxford English Dictionary, though an heroic achievement, is simply an historical dictionary, a record of the language, much like a house with an attic full of old rope and broken furniture.
Language is a rich subject, and linguists and lexicographers have much to tell us about it. But journalism has instead for the past half-century, since the publication of Webster's Third, made the dictionary a whipping boy for cultural trends that the writer dislikes. This approach has gone stale.
*Give him credit for knowing that it was the Oxford Dictionaries Online, not the Oxford English Dictionary, an error to be found in numerous wire service and newspaper stories. Even The New York Times referred to the OED in a tweet. (Shame, shame.)
**"fear of missing out"
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun