By Lynn Crandall
If you don’t know what the world “Hella” means, you now can look it up in the newest version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It means “a lot of” and “very.” You also can now look up bitcoin, TMI, life hack, and cold one.
While some of us wordsmiths may not agree, the dictionary is not the Bible. It does not remain unchanged over time. Merriam-Webster’s website assures us that editors are hard at work watching new words coming into our world and assessing whether or not they’ll make the jump from newly common words to accepted words listed in the dictionary.
According to dictionary’s website, “Each day most Merriam-Webster editors devote an hour or two to reading a cross section of published material, including books, newspapers, magazines, and electronic publications; in our office this activity is called "reading and marking." The editors scour the texts in search of new words, new usages of existing words, variant spellings, and inflected forms–in short, anything that might help in deciding if a word belongs in the dictionary, understanding what it means, and determining typical usage. Any word of interest is marked, along with surrounding context that offers insight into its form and use.”
After words are noted, they move to the Citations file, where they are assessed for usage frequency. A word must be found in a wide range of publications, giving it a large number of citations. From there, the word becomes a new entry when the editors decide evidence proves it is firmly established in society’s vocabulary.
This process allows dictionaries to remain as fluid as our language and reflect our real speech. For example, in a Words We’re Watching blog post, Merriam-Webster writes that the word “athleisure” has been considered. It is a word used to describe casual clothing worn as both every day and fitness apparel. It’s a big word in fashion these days. With its entry in the dictionary, we may no longer purchase “sweats,” “gym shorts,” or “workout cloths.” I imagine the term “gym suit,” is already long gone from our vocabulary and I hope the garment from anyone’s physical education locker.
It’s important that our word authorities keep sources up-to-date. I know this. But sometimes I find myself using a word that I rarely have used. It just pops up. It’s become outdated, but the sound and the feel of it when spoken triggers memories. Some of the memories are not mine, but of an era I’ve only learned about. Those old words can harken images of men sitting on benches outside of small town retailers, passing the evening in conversation. Or of women in aprons setting up a church potluck on the lawn while children run around in bermudas (the first time they were in style) and striped pullover T-shirts.
It’s probably not important to keep up the usage of “shucks,” or “fiddle-faddle,” “piffle,” and “neato.” Why exclaim “that’s the cat’s pajamas” or “far out” when we can say, “Awesome” or “Way Cool?” Or use a whole sentence, “He’s ignoring my phone calls and messages,” when we can say, “He’s ghosting?”
Sometimes I get agitated at some of the ways our speech is changing. I’m not fond of “va cay,” or “kray kray.” Is it really so hard to say, “Vacation,” or “Crazy?”
What new words do you find pleasurable to use? What words do you miss?