New words, phrases, and definitions are added to the Oxford English Dictionary four times a year, and this month’s revision includes over 1,200 changes and updates, from a new “sense” of the word thing to the “well-established, but newly-prominent usage of woke,” as Head of U.S. Dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin writes on the OED’s blog.
Martin, one of the people who decides which new words and “senses” get added to the OED, agreed to answer a few questions for us about how that process works, and whether dictionary rivalries exist. (We’re looking at you, Merriam-Webster.)
We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock-still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.
A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).
Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.
“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”
I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer. Read more…
In an earlier letter, I put out a call for favorite words you learned in 2016. I hoped they’d make a nice handful of marbles for us to have in our pockets for this new year, which only this week taught me the word ‘kompromat.’ :-(. Read more…
Bernie Sanders’ campaign website categorizes his platform as “progressive”; Hillary Clinton has recently started describing herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done.” And Beverly Gage has a fascinating piece over at The New York Times Magazine about the shifting definition of the word “progressive,” particularly in relation to its similarly left-leaning lexical cousin “liberal.”
According to Gage, “progressive” came into widespread use in the early 1900s, during “a moment when many Americans believed democracy was failing.” The time period doesn’t sound so dissimilar to today: the richest of the rich—robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—controlled enormous wealth, while millions of Americans (many of them immigrants) lived in poverty. The first round of progressivism was a response to this massive income inequality, as the middle class “went in search of a new politics that would enable both the government and the citizenry to rebalance this distribution of power.”
The ‘‘progressive’’ movement was, at first, a big-tent enterprise, a ‘‘remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation,’’ in the words of the historian Richard Hofstadter. The general impulse to do something inspired a bewildering array of social movements that had little in common by today’s standards. At its height, progressivism produced moralists, cynics and social engineers, with some progressives seeking to liberate humanity from its benighted superstitions as others sought to impose strict rules about sex, alcohol and racial intermingling. Urban reformers and pacifists and trustbusters and suffragists all called themselves ‘‘progressives.’’ So did prohibitionists and segregationists and antivaccinationists and eugenicists. Historians still refer to the first two decades of the 20th century as the Progressive Era, a time when the nation enacted its first federal income tax and food-safety regulations and women won the right to vote. But during that period, progressivism’s darker side emerged, too: the creation of the Jim Crow system and the passage of viciously exclusionary immigration restriction.
And if you think the currently squabbling over the true definition of “progressive” is confusing, 2016 has nothing on 1912, when both Democrats and Republicans simultaneously embraced the term. Former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was running for office under the newly minted “Progressive Party,” with his two main opponents (Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, one a Democrat and one a Republican, respectively) also self-describing with the term.
But the real narrative of the word “progressive” seems to be that of a shifting pendulum: it fell from favor in the aftermath of World War I, and Great Depression-era reformers abandoned it completely, instead identifying as “liberals.” As Gage writes:
This word [liberal] set them apart from the prim moralizing of some of their predecessors; one of Franklin Roosevelt’s first acts as president was to allow the nation to drink beer. It also suggested a growing respect for civil liberties, rejecting the progressives’ tendency to favor social control over individual freedom. When Washington reformers became ‘‘liberals,’’ ‘‘progressives’’ in turn became more radical. In the parlance of the 1930s, to be a ‘‘progressive’’ was suddenly to be a ‘‘fellow traveler,’’ someone who never joined the Communist Party but who felt that the Communists might have a point.
The pendulum shifts continued throughout the 20th century and, it now seems, will keep swinging well into the 21st.
When we turn to the person sitting next to us and say something, it’s not particularly difficult to convey our emotional intent. We have an entire arsenal of non-verbal tools at our disposal when we communicate in person: we can gesticulate, frown, shrug, shake our heads, even face-palm. But what about the instances when we are limited to words on a screen? According to linguist Chi Luu, “email, instant messaging and other online forums for speech have made the efficient communication of emotion and social cues necessary,” and this is where the internet famous face-palm comes into play. In a recent column for JSTOR Daily, Luu explored the rise of so-called “reaction GIFs,” and their place in our internet vernacular:
The evolution from simple punctuation-based emoticons to more complex reaction gifs from internet memes shows how more nuanced expressions are being stylized and conveyed in online culture. Emoticons in parallel have themselves developed some complexity, influenced by their Japanese counterparts. These are known as kaomojis, which use combinations that include katakana characters, such as the shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and the ever popular table flip (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ . Emoticons that are frequently used have been developed into image versions of their punctuation selves (also known as emoji) and are so popular with internet users an emoji-only messenger is now available for those who like their communication short and sweet.
From visual emojis depicting simple emotional states, it’s a short step to the more dynamic emotion or reaction gifs, used by certain internet subcultures to respond or react in playful ways to an online discussion. These are gif images, often originating from internet memes, that depict elements of body language that can be too complex for an emoticon to describe. Essentially, it’s an innovative way for speakers to convey a sense of gesture on the internet.