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  • I need to start by telling you a little bit

  • about my social life,

  • which I know may not seem relevant,

  • but it is.

  • When people meet me at parties

  • and they find out that I'm an English professor

  • who specializes in language,

  • they generally have one of two reactions.

  • One set of people look frightened. (Laughter)

  • They often say something like,

  • "Oh, I'd better be careful what I say.

  • I'm sure you'll hear every mistake I make."

  • And then they stop talking. (Laughter)

  • And they wait for me to go away

  • and talk to someone else.

  • The other set of people,

  • their eyes light up,

  • and they say,

  • "You are just the person I want to talk to."

  • And then they tell me about whatever it is

  • they think is going wrong with the English language.

  • (Laughter)

  • A couple of weeks ago, I was at a dinner party

  • and the man to my right

  • started telling me about all the ways

  • that the Internet is degrading the English language.

  • He brought up Facebook, and he said,

  • "To defriend? I mean, is that even a real word?"

  • I want to pause on that question:

  • What makes a word real?

  • My dinner companion and I both know

  • what the verb "defriend" means,

  • so when does a new word like "defriend"

  • become real?

  • Who has the authority to make those kinds

  • of official decisions about words, anyway?

  • Those are the questions I want to talk about today.

  • I think most people, when they say a word isn't real,

  • what they mean is, it doesn't appear

  • in a standard dictionary.

  • That, of course, raises a host of other questions,

  • including, who writes dictionaries?

  • Before I go any further,

  • let me clarify my role in all of this.

  • I do not write dictionaries.

  • I do, however, collect new words

  • much the way dictionary editors do,

  • and the great thing about being a historian

  • of the English language

  • is that I get to call this "research."

  • When I teach the history of the English language,

  • I require that students teach me

  • two new slang words before I will begin class.

  • Over the years, I have learned

  • some great new slang this way,

  • including "hangry," which --

  • (Applause) —

  • which is when you are cranky or angry

  • because you are hungry,

  • and "adorkable,"

  • which is when you are adorable

  • in kind of a dorky way,

  • clearly, terrific words that fill

  • important gaps in the English language.

  • (Laughter)

  • But how real are they

  • if we use them primarily as slang

  • and they don't yet appear in a dictionary?

  • With that, let's turn to dictionaries.

  • I'm going to do this as a show of hands:

  • How many of you still regularly

  • refer to a dictionary, either print or online?

  • Okay, so that looks like most of you.

  • Now, a second question. Again, a show of hands:

  • How many of you have ever looked to see

  • who edited the dictionary you are using?

  • Okay, many fewer.

  • At some level, we know that there are human hands

  • behind dictionaries,

  • but we're really not sure who those hands belong to.

  • I'm actually fascinated by this.

  • Even the most critical people out there

  • tend not to be very critical about dictionaries,

  • not distinguishing among them

  • and not asking a whole lot of questions

  • about who edited them.

  • Just think about the phrase

  • "Look it up in the dictionary,"

  • which suggests that all dictionaries

  • are exactly the same.

  • Consider the library here on campus,

  • where you go into the reading room,

  • and there is a large, unabridged dictionary

  • up on a pedestal in this place of honor and respect

  • lying open so we can go stand before it

  • to get answers.

  • Now, don't get me wrong,

  • dictionaries are fantastic resources,

  • but they are human

  • and they are not timeless.

  • I'm struck as a teacher

  • that we tell students to critically question

  • every text they read, every website they visit,

  • except dictionaries,

  • which we tend to treat as un-authored,

  • as if they came from nowhere to give us answers

  • about what words really mean.

  • Here's the thing: If you ask dictionary editors,

  • what they'll tell you

  • is they're just trying to keep up with us

  • as we change the language.

  • They're watching what we say and what we write

  • and trying to figure out what's going to stick

  • and what's not going to stick.

  • They have to gamble,

  • because they want to appear cutting edge

  • and catch the words that are going to make it,

  • such as LOL,

  • but they don't want to appear faddish

  • and include the words that aren't going to make it,

  • and I think a word that they're watching right now

  • is YOLO, you only live once.

  • Now I get to hang out with dictionary editors,

  • and you might be surprised

  • by one of the places where we hang out.

  • Every January, we go

  • to the American Dialect Society annual meeting,

  • where among other things,

  • we vote on the word of the year.

  • There are about 200 or 300 people who come,

  • some of the best known linguists in the United States.

  • To give you a sense of the flavor of the meeting,

  • it occurs right before happy hour.

  • Anyone who comes can vote.

  • The most important rule is

  • that you can vote with only one hand.

  • In the past, some of the winners have been

  • "tweet" in 2009

  • and "hashtag" in 2012.

  • "Chad" was the word of the year in the year 2000,

  • because who knew what a chad was before 2000,

  • and "WMD" in 2002.

  • Now, we have other categories in which we vote too,

  • and my favorite category

  • is most creative word of the year.

  • Past winners in this category have included

  • "recombobulation area,"

  • which is at the Milwaukee Airport after security,

  • where you can recombobulate.

  • (Laughter)

  • You can put your belt back on,

  • put your computer back in your bag.

  • And then my all-time favorite word at this vote,

  • which is "multi-slacking."

  • (Laughter)

  • And multi-slacking is the act

  • of having multiple windows up on your screen

  • so it looks like you're working

  • when you're actually goofing around on the web.

  • (Laughter) (Applause)

  • Will all of these words stick? Absolutely not.

  • And we have made some questionable choices,

  • for example in 2006

  • when the word of the year was "Plutoed,"

  • to mean demoted.

  • (Laughter)

  • But some of the past winners

  • now seem completely unremarkable,

  • such as "app"

  • and "e" as a prefix,

  • and "google" as a verb.

  • Now, a few weeks before our vote,

  • Lake Superior State University

  • issues its list of banished words for the year.

  • What is striking about this

  • is that there's actually often quite a lot of overlap

  • between their list and the list that we are considering

  • for words of the year,

  • and this is because we're noticing the same thing.

  • We're noticing words that are coming into prominence.

  • It's really a question of attitude.

  • Are you bothered by language fads and language change,

  • or do you find it fun, interesting,

  • something worthy of study

  • as part of a living language?

  • The list by Lake Superior State University

  • continues a fairly long tradition in English

  • of complaints about new words.

  • So here is Dean Henry Alford in 1875,

  • who was very concerned that "desirability"

  • is really a terrible word.

  • In 1760, Benjamin Franklin

  • wrote a letter to David Hume

  • giving up the word "colonize" as bad.

  • Over the years, we've also seen worries

  • about new pronunciations.

  • Here is Samuel Rogers in 1855

  • who is concerned about some fashionable pronunciations

  • that he finds offensive,

  • and he says "as if contemplate were not bad enough,

  • balcony makes me sick."

  • (Laughter)

  • The word is borrowed in from Italian

  • and it was pronounced bal-COE-nee.

  • These complaints now strike us as quaint,

  • if not downright adorkable -- (Laughter) --

  • but here's the thing:

  • we still get quite worked up about language change.

  • I have an entire file in my office

  • of newspaper articles

  • which express concern about illegitimate words

  • that should not have been included in the dictionary,

  • including "LOL"

  • when it got into the Oxford English Dictionary

  • and "defriend"

  • when it got into the Oxford American Dictionary.

  • I also have articles expressing concern

  • about "invite" as a noun,

  • "impact" as a verb,

  • because only teeth can be impacted,

  • and "incentivize" is described

  • as "boorish, bureaucratic misspeak."

  • Now, it's not that dictionary editors

  • ignore these kinds of attitudes about language.

  • They try to provide us some guidance about words

  • that are considered slang or informal

  • or offensive, often through usage labels,

  • but they're in something of a bind,

  • because they're trying to describe what we do,

  • and they know that we often go to dictionaries

  • to get information about how we should use a word

  • well or appropriately.

  • In response, the American Heritage Dictionaries

  • include usage notes.

  • Usage notes tend to occur with words

  • that are troublesome in one way,

  • and one of the ways that they can be troublesome

  • is that they're changing meaning.

  • Now usage notes involve very human decisions,

  • and I think, as dictionary users,

  • we're often not as aware of those human decisions

  • as we should be.

  • To show you what I mean,

  • we'll look at an example, but before we do,

  • I want to explain what the dictionary editors

  • are trying to deal with in this usage note.

  • Think about the word "peruse"

  • and how you use that word.

  • I would guess many of you are thinking

  • of skim, scan, reading quickly.

  • Some of you may even have some walking involved,

  • because you're perusing grocery store shelves,

  • or something like that.

  • You might be surprised to learn

  • that if you look in most standard dictionaries,

  • the first definition will be to read carefully,

  • or pour over.

  • American Heritage has that as the first definition.

  • They then have, as the second definition, skim,

  • and next to that, they say "usage problem."

  • (Laughter)

  • And then they include a usage note,

  • which is worth looking at.