New words! The Oxford English Dictionary has mapped the evolution of the English tongue for 1,000 years and has now added another batch to the definitive record of the living language. And “squee”! We’re delighted to welcome the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Is Katherine Martin an expert? “Fuhgeddaboudit”. She spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Thanks for being with us. Why is it important to add words like “squee” and “moobs” and “yogalates” to the dictionary?
Martin: Well the OED is a special dictionary, it’s not just like a dictionary that you keep on your desk to check how to spell words. It tries to tell, as you were saying, the full thousand year history of English. So, we see ourselves as a project for posterity. One hundred years from now what words will people be interested in about our time? And we think that “squee” and words like that are some of the ones that people in the future will find interesting, as well as people in the present.
Williams: “Squee” meaning we’re delighted. What makes a word unworthy of being added?
Martin: Well I think most lexicographers, that’s people who write dictionaries, would say they wish they had infinite resources and infinite space and could cover every word no matter how minor and how little used. But we have to make choices, so for the OED we generally want a word to have a little bit of a story behind it. We’re a historical dictionary. We show the full history of a word from the time that it was first used up to the present. We like to have a little bit of a biography to tell of each word.
Williams: And one of those words is “YOLO”, which actually goes back to Balzac in the 19th century, right?
Martin: Well, in the first phrase, “you only live once”, that phrase goes back much further and we have the specific phrase “you only live once” back to the 19th century and then in the 20th century we see isolated examples of people realizing, hey you only live once, that kind of makes a great acronym. But it wasn’t until much more recently that that really became well-established and so it’s in the age of social media.
Williams: Speaking of history, there was a time when lexicographers poured over printed documents and scoured high school bathrooms, really, searching for new words or old ones with new currency. But now you have Twitter. How has the internet changed everything?
Martin: It has changed everything because 50 years ago even two teenagers talking and having their slang that they used together was limited to those two or three teenagers and would never spread beyond their circle and never be written down, except as you say in a high school bathroom. But nowadays if they’re communicating on Twitter, their new word that they invented is spreading all over the world and it leave a record that lexicographers can use later. So it’s extremely exciting and we see new words spreading very quickly and proliferating.
Williams: Are there some words that seem to have been added a long time ago and then get resubmitted? What makes a word get resubmitted? New use?
Martin: Well, we need to have a minimum amount of use before we add something to the dictionary. So “squee” is a great example of this. When we started working on the history of “squee”, because it became prominent in the age of the internet, just in the last 10 or 15 years, but when we started to look at it we realized its history actually went back to the 19th century. It was used at such a low level of frequency in the 19th and most of the 20th century that it was never really on our radar. So if we had encountered that in our files we would have said, ah, not really worth adding to the dictionary yet. But all of a sudden there’s this explosion when it starts getting used on the internet as an expression of delight and so for that reason we go and find the whole history and add it.
Williams: Why the hat tip to Ronald Dahl this month? “Oompa Loompa” and “scrumdiddlyumptious” were his.
Martin: Well, the Ronald Dahl words are really interesting because having looked at his legacy in language, there are words that he himself invented, but there are many more that kind of were there in which he was the vector of popularization. “Scrumdiddlyumptious”, which I think of as being such a Ronald Dahl word, was actually used in American English. I think knowing the history of the words allows us to see the degree to which we’re immersed in a living language and it’s changing all the time.
Williams: Thank you Katherine Martin.
Martin: My pleasure.