When Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) released its quarterly list of new words in August, online commenters and columnists alike expressed fear for the future of the English language and, by extension, their hope in humanity overall.
In a column titled "Oxford Dictionaries adds twerk, FOMO, selfie and other words that make me vom," Washington Post columnist Michael Dirda, opines, "Like so much digital terminology, many of these new words are ugly."
Even some younger commenters expressed disapproval. On an OxfordWords blog titled "Buzzworthy words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online -- squee!" commenter "Alexis" lamented, "Really, is it necessary to use srsly instead of actually saying the word? Coming from an 18-year-old, this makes me lose all hope in my generation."
Many of these fears are understandable. With the addition of words like MOOC, srsly, hackerspace and emoji, it is no surprise that concern over the omnipresence of tech in our daily lives and vocabularies, and laziness as manifest in inelegant abbreviations are common reactions.
The question is really whether this new lingo is somehow more detrimental to "formal" English than the new lingo of previous generations.
I would argue that in general, today's newest words are just as crass, silly and wonderful as ever. I've actually found myself wishing that the Oxford Dictionaries Online were more comprehensive in their inclusion of informal terminology. After all, there's a whole history of explicit dances, crude insults and creative synonyms for words like drunk, attractive and stupid that the ODO totally ignores.
To prove this point, let's look at a bit of Francis Grose's "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue." The 1811 version of this slang dictionary is available for free online, providing insight into the crudeness of the past.
• Balum Rancum: A hop or dance, where the women are all prostitutes. The company dance in their birthday suits. Hey look, twerking isn't the first questionable dance trend.
• Swizzle: In North America, a mixture of spruce beer, rum and sugar, was so called. The 17th regiment had a society called the Swizzle Club at Ticonderoga, A.D. 1760. It reminds one of the lyrics to "Like a G6." See: "gettin' slizzard."
• Apple Dumpling Shop: A woman's bosom. Good one.
As becomes clear, we're consistently prone to inventing informal terminology for things like dancing, drinking and breasts. Terms and trends fade in and out of use, giving a unique snapshot into a specific era.
But the great thing about online dictionaries is that there is no need to limit their length by deleting obsolete terms. Many of the modern-day colloquialisms included in the ODO will likely go out of style, yet their use will be forever memorialized online. It's only fair that balum rancum, swizzle and apple dumpling shop receive the same treatment.
So if we accept that raunchy/problematic words for raunchy/problematic trends are nothing new, is it still OK to get worked up about today's overabundance of abbreviations, hashtags and techy terms?
You could, I suppose. But it might be more productive to question the culture itself, not the linguistic byproducts. Plus, it's far more enjoyable to find humor in the abbreviations, creativity in the hashtag usage and beauty (even poetry!) in the tweets.
Anecdotally, Bill Clinton about made my day when he used the hashtag #sockswag a few weeks back in a tweet regarding George Bush Senior's cactus-themed footwear.
Thus, while I have no idea how humanity is going to end up, I think that traditional English will be just fine. Like every generation before them, youth these days appear able to contextualize their slang usage, saving new ODO terms for convos with their BFFs and leaving them out of book reports.
Personally, I can't wait to look through the ODO 30 years from now. Today's slang is silly; tomorrow's will be too. So enjoy it, because ... (you know what's coming now, right?)
Katie Brigham is a former photo and multimedia intern with the PG. She enjoys overly bombastic language and uncouth slang about equally. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @katie_brigham.