The English language changes over time. Many things influence the words we use and the way we use them. Over centuries or even decades, new words come into vogue. Foreigners influence our language. As does a global economy, technology, and mass entertainment. But now the Internet, with instant access to everyone’s thoughts and ideas via blogs, podcasts, videos, and social media represents the biggest game-changer to the language. We’ve arrived at the point where made-up words or words used by a minor clique over a short period of time suddenly gain legitimacy.
A growing website, www.wordnik.com, co-founded by lexicographer Erin McKean, who is a former editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, is shining a spotlight on words and terms that are so freshly coined that their existence outpaces usage. This means whereas traditional dictionaries wait to see which new words have sticking power and become popularly used for a while before including them into a dictionary, Wordnik desperately seeks to record any utterance made by anyone anywhere. I call this practice stupidictionizing.
Sure it sounds made up, because it is. I just minted it. Wordnik, please make the entry now! Oh, wait, you want validation that it’s a real word? What if a few of my blog readers retweet it to their handful of connections? Or maybe I can get my local newspaper to quote the word in an interview with me. Apparently it doesn’t take much more than that for Wordnik to capture what it deems as words.
Dictionaries are stuffy for a reason. Though it’s important that a dictionary reflects the words used by people, it’s also important that people use words from a dictionary. Otherwise you have vocabulary anarchy. Ooh, wait. There’s another word we need minted into Wordnik: vocabunarchy. Yes, you’re welcome.
See it’s way too easy to create a word. If every phrase one makes up becomes a word, we’ll be flooded with counterfeit words. Confusion will set in. People will be slowed down by these words, running to a dictionary just to decipher an email from a friend.
However, there’s something appealing about what Wordnik is doing. It is seeking to take note of our language in any given moment, a snapshot of lingual evolution. But by doing so, it then creates a false sense of the language and encourages people to use words they otherwise didn’t know existed (because they didn’t).
Try doing word searches or crossword puzzles, or play Scrabble or Words With Friend by using Wordnik vs. a standard dictionary.
We live in a world with standards, measurements, and laws for a reason. We want things to mean something, to be relevant. Language is used precisely because it has consistency and uniformity. To get what we need, to say what we want, and to freely take action we must have some set of guidelines to go by. We must protect our language before it gets bastardized.
This doesn’t mean stupidictionizing or vocabunarchy can’t become words, but they sure as hell can’t become words just because I say so. They need to stand the test of time, and to be used by a significant number of people. Wordnik may record that BookMarketingBuzzBlog used these words and it may further follow who else uses them, but until we see true common use of the words, they are bullshit.
Wordnik, according to a New York Times article, is seeking funding so it can have the resources to digitally scour the Internet’s use of words, and hopes to uncover a million words being utilized that are not in standard dictionaries.
Maybe Apple, Twitter, Google, and a few other big-tech companies should just come up with their own dictionary, similar to ones that sprouted for Ebonics, Spanglish, sports lingo, and Star Trekisms.
A lot of the phrases Wordnik is capturing reflect a combination of two words, a shortened compound word if you will. Awksome (awkward and awesome) and hilazing (hilarious and amazing) are two of the eight million entries collected thus far. But why stop there? Why not combine these entries into yet newer ones. How about awksomizing – it combines awksome with hilazing. Eventually, someone will come along and suggest we use symbols or numbers to shorten these words, or to acknowledge a certain degree of awksomizing, such as awk+zing6. The plus sign saves a few letters and the six, on a rating scale of 1 to 10 reveals just how awksomizing something like Wordnik really is.
Luckily, there are enough words to describe how I feel about Wordnik right now, and they include modern-day curse words and traditional words of anger, frustration and disbelief.
Wordnik believes it’s a new dictionary of the masses, for the masses. It doesn’t allow for consumers' input, such as Wikipedia, so it’s not gone as far as it can go. Once it crowdsources any submission from anyone, we’ll see eight million words grow to eight billion. But it’s already out of control.
If Wordnik loves words and language the way it says it does, it will rethink its approach. In its attempt to give more words meaning it will cease to give meaning to the words that mean everything.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015
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