Why words like lolz, ridic and mwahahaha make it into the Oxford English Dictionary

© artenot - Fotolia.comLast month, the Oxford English Dictionary revealed its latest buzz-inducing list of new words to enter the revered reference guide. This time, words like lolz, hackathon, ridic, and group hug made the cut (see the full list at Oxford Dictionaries Online).

Every time this happens (which is four times a year, FYI), there’s a slew of articles, blog posts and quippy TV pieces that express a mixture of outcry, bafflement and sheer amusement at the latest additions. How could mwahahaha become a real word… in the dictionary?! We tend to think of dictionaries as the end-all and be-all of language. If it’s not in the dictionary, then it’s not a real word… right?

Well, it turns out dictionaries — like language itself — are dynamic and very much alive.  Rather than being rigid and prescriptive texts, they’re a reflection of humans’ relationship with language.  As some words fall out of favor (so long, growlery), others make their way into daily usage (hello, sexting).

In previous years, OMG-worthy entries have included jiggy, bling, woot and <3. We get bent out of shape because we feel these words haven’t yet proven their staying power to enter something as venerated as a dictionary. But nothing compared to the uproar caused last year when cassette tape was ruthlessly slashed to make room for words like retweet. Did this mean that the cassette tape was effectively being erased from our language — and our history?!

Well, no. Casette tape actually got removed from the Concise OED — this is a mini version of the full OED that’s meant to represent the current vocabulary of the English-speaking world.The full Oxford English Dictionary continues to be one of the most respected, comprehensive, and expensive guides to pretty much every word in our language. There, words like casette tape and video jockey continue to live on (and of course, the ’80s continue to live on in our hearts)…

You can also still find these words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, what TIME Magazine called “the hipper and more adaptable young cousin of the venerable OED.” Its role is actually tracking language trends and adding words as they reach a tipping point of daily usage. There are even different editions for U.S. English vs. British & World English. If you’re interested in how words make the cut, you can see the ODO’s infographic explaining the process. A word doesn’t actually enter the “real” OED until after it’s proven itself worthy over a long period of time.

The OED has long been considered the premier dictionary of our language. And while some of the new entries to the online edition seem silly (personally, I don’t think “getting voted off the island” deserves an entry) I respect that they continue to stay on the cutting edge of language. To be fair, other dictionaries like Merriam-Webster also regularly update their word lists (this year they added f-bomb and mash-up, for example). But for word nerds like me, the OED remains the ultimate. For a better understanding of why, I highly recommend Simon Winchester’s book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Turns out you have to be a little loopy to want to create a record of, well, the meaning and history of every word in the English language… ever.

So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — the Oxford Dictionaries Online is sponsoring a contest for the best 50-word story inspired by the most recent additions (you could win an iPod Touch). That’s right, an iPod. Because while Walkman may have entered the OED in 1986, it got the Concise OED kibosh long ago. Who knew a dictionary could make you feel so old?

1 thought on “Why words like lolz, ridic and mwahahaha make it into the Oxford English Dictionary

  1. Pingback: The 2012 election was a battle to define the words that define us | This Wonderful Word

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