Adorbs, MacGyver, grouse, bling-bling, selfie, woke. These are some of the words admitted to the Oxford Dictionary over the past few years. But where do words come from and why do we say them? Paul Little reports.
The Oxford English Dictionary is about to release its latest online update. It does this every three months and last time around admitted 650 words to its revered pages. That's about seven a day. Not all were new, though. Some, such as sprog as a verb, meaning to get someone pregnant, were established words that had acquired new meanings. Any old word can't just waltz into the dictionary.
The Oxford, although not without its competitors, is generally regarded as the definitive authority on what words are part of the English language and has been since the first edition was completed in 1928.
Such rapid growth in the already large numbers of words in English – 180,000 is a reasonable estimate - raises the question: whose vocabulary is it anyway? How do words get into any language, including our own? How did they spread, like, before social media.
In general, all languages acquire words in the same ways, says Victoria University's Laurie Bauer, professor emeritus in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.
"One obvious thing is when languages come in contact [with each other]," says Bauer.
"People arrive here, look around and say, 'I've never seen that plant,' and turn to the next person and say, 'What's that?' and someone says, 'It's a rimu,' so we have that word."
Bauer rattles off other mechanisms by which words join languages. From people's names for instance. In fact, in March the Oxford added the verb "to MacGyver" meaning to "construct, fix, or modify (something) in an improvised or inventive way typically by making use of whatever items are at hand".
"Another obvious way," says Bauer, "is when the world changes around you. In 1980 we didn't have computers or email." Now we have them and the words to describe them. Existing words can be adapted to meet new needs, such as chips, as in computer not fish and, or a compound such as user-friendly which combines two old words to describe something new. The last Oxford update added "saving a web address" to the meanings of "favourite".
The OED isn't good at letting go. Words are never removed under any circumstances, but about a quarter of the entries are words classed as obsolete. It's different in real life, where words come in and out of fashion or acceptability more easily.
"If things are distasteful we get rid of them or we change them," says Bauer, "such as all those words of racial denigration. Words for lavatory or toilet or loo all become distasteful once their meaning is established." A toilet used to be where you had a little pile of linen and a lavatory was a place to wash your hands." Once the more, ahem, digestive meaning takes over, we look for a replacement, which may be why a generation of New Zealanders has started going to the bathroom.
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"There are some areas where words become too strong or too weak," observes Bauer. "You will remember when something was really great, it was grouse. If you tried that on a 10-year-old, they would look at you blankly."
Words describing something good lose their effect if they are heard too often. You need something new and exciting to get the point across." Which is a fully sick point. Or would have been a couple of years ago.
Onomatapeia – words that sound like what they describe – are among the oldest words says Keith Montgomery, lecturer in linguistics at the University of Auckland.
In fact some people believe language started that way, using the noise an animal made, for instance, to indicate to another person that it was nearby. Fart, on that basis, would have been with us forever. Quack and croak are two everyday examples.
More recently, in 1987, the word bling-bling – soon shortened to bling – was introduced to describe a certain kind of flashy jewellery which makes that noise when the wearer moves.
Montgomery says that as well as reasons of sensitivity, some words leave common usage and get sent to the obsolete corner because the thing they describe disappear. Cassette, which has been around for several decades, is likely to go this way, becoming the reserve of antiquarians.
He points out that "–gate", added to a word to describe it as a disaster, has long outlived the original Watergate scandal that inspired it.
"There is a whole Wikipedia page listing different kinds of -gates but it's overused, I think."
The young must also take some of the blame for apparently fickle linguistic fads. "Acronyms like ROFL that are turned into words tend to come and go. They start as 'young-speech', then old people take them up, so young people drop them."
But there's no predicting which way a word will go. The word cool is slang that has survived with its meaning intact for coming up to a century.
"If I say in a lecture: 'How many people say 'cool'?' they all put their hands up. If I say: 'How many people say 'daddy oh'?' [from about the same era] they look at me as if I'm from another planet."
History and language collide here. The Oxford itself has always been based "on historical principles" and sometimes its research into words turns up surprising results. Take OMG. It's not a millennial mantra. On the contrary, the first recorded use the dictionary can cite was in a letter written to Winston Churchill by a World War I admiral. It reappeared in the LA Times in 1982.
The editors of the Oxford use a number of ways to discover new words, notably with the help of volunteers around the world who read anything and, if not everything, then as much as possible, in print to find examples of new words to add to its database. Yes, to employ a fashionable phrase – much of the dictionary is crowd-sourced.
The first shout-out for assistance occurred in 1857, but the first volume (from letter A to Ant) did not appear until 1884, and the last in 1928.
Now, anyone can submit words online to start them on the complicated vetting process. Editors consider all words submitted. But a word must be used a lot to make the OED. If they don't think a word has enough mana to make the cut, it will be returned to the watch list and monitored to see if it becomes used more widely.
Words that do get through are then researched further by an editor who works on tracing it back to its earliest appearance. When that has been established – and only then – work begins on writing the entry, which includes not just meaning but pronunciation, the word's etymology and examples of usage over the years.
New Zealand English gets its new words in the same ways as most other forms of the mother tongue, but the increasing inclusion of words from te reo Māori in the standard vocabulary is exceptional.
Waikato University linguist Andreea Calude has been studying the phenomenon and says that, around the world, having words move from the minority to the dominant language is rare, although not unheard of – some white Americans will occasionally refer to wampum and teepees for instance.
"What's unusual here is the volume and the stickiness," says Calude. "They are sticking around and we are borrowing a lot of them "
She says words that have been used by all English speakers for a while, such as aroha, are being used more frequently and new borrowings, such as manaakitanga are coming on-stream at a faster rate.
And it's not like we didn't already have words in English for love and hospitality.
"People are using the words to portray their identity in a particular way. Māori people who don't speak Māori use them to assert their identity as Māori. And Pākehā people like me use them as a way to show solidarity and affinity with Māori language and culture."
She notes te reo being used in sometimes surprising places as a result. Take the National Science Challenges, which consider proposals for large sums of government research funding.
"A very scientific discourse is full of Māori loan words," Calude says of proposals she looked at. "They are positioning the challenges within a specifically New Zealand space."
She says it's hard to count exactly how many Māori words are crossing over but it's definitely growing. "In the early 2000s, in newspapers, you got about six te reo words per thousand." In a study made more recently - admittedly in Māori Language Week when you might expect some increase anyway – researchers found 30 per thousand.
Scrabble players have a paradoxical attitude to language. Unlike most lexically obsessed people, Scrabblites (not a real word – I've just made it up in the hope it will catch on) don't care what words mean, explains Howard Warner, president of the New Zealand Scrabble Players Association.
It's all about what combinations of letters can be put on the board and how many points they will earn. You don't win Scrabble by understanding words but by memorising what's on the official list.
Players have been unusually excited this year because their primary source, Collins Official Scrabble Words, has just added 2862 words to the 276,000 it already had on the board.
"My impression is that this is great for Scrabble players because it gives us more words to play with. We like to have as many weapons as we can."
Why not just use a dictionary that's updated online every three months, such as the OED? Apparently, there are practical difficulties.
"We couldn't do it that frequently," explains Warner. "We need acceptance from all the Scrabble associations. People need time to absorb them before they are accepted into the tournaments. This latest update came into force on May 2 and we will be adopting it on the first of July so everyone has a chance to learn them."
So it's not hard to see why it's taken four years for the latest tranche of new words to be sanctioned. And even that isn't quite as generous as it seems, according to Warner, who points out that only 617 of the nearly 3000 new words fall within the two- to eight-letter range that is useful to Scrabble players wielding their maximum of seven tiles.
Whatever the next Oxford update brings us, we can be sure it will have been fully considered and researched. The last one finally admitted Aucklander to describe someone from Auckland. Not that Aucklanders can complain about the time that took. It also admitted for the first time sprit, meaning "to sprout or germinate", discovered to have been in use in a corner of England since the 10th century. LOL.
A listicle of the latest lingo
Some of the words entered into the Oxford Dictionary: adorbs, MacGyver, grouse, bling-bling, ROFL, selfie, woke, sprog, binge-watch, cray, humblebrag, listicle, neckbeard, SMH, side boob, vape, YOLO, amazeballs, mansplain, side-eye, clickbait, douchebaggery, time-poor, smartwatch