A Passion for Words: The Week of Dictionary Controversy

Monday, September 06, 2010

It was a lively week fueled largely by misinformation as talk about the Oxford University Press filled blogs and flooded news columns across the Web. “The king’s book may never be seen in print again,” they cried. “Did you hear about those words that were added? What could the king be thinking to allow the lowly words of mere peasants into the holy grail of dictionaries?” For anyone who thought that Dick Snary was companion only to writers and other word-geeks this hoopla was surely a wake-up call. What was the underlying reason for the ruckus? If a book is not available in print do we fear we are being denied the information? If words we consider crass are acknowledged and accepted by a credible source does that somehow dilute the “purity” of our language?

The English language has an almost limitless ability to expand and develop. This is good news for those of us who want to continue to communicate the never-ending evolution of thoughts and ideas. Our ability to express is limited only by our own imagination--or sometimes by our editor—not by printed decree of the king. This is a language created by the people; the use of which can be neither denied nor muffled. It can, however, be recorded.

This brings us back to Oxford University Press and some necessary clarifications:

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has not yet been printed. The ODE just revised RH--rococoesque and added the section to their draft for the new edition. A couple hundred words were added, mostly in this category, and there were some changes made in sub-categories. The new edition will probably be finished around the year 2020. Retail cost for a published volume set is estimated at $995. No final decision has been made regarding the cessation of printed volumes. The OED is accessible online for a fee. Why pay for access to an online dictionary when you can look up a word for free? The OED is a historical dictionary as opposed to a current-use dictionary; it is more like an encyclopedic language reference.

It is the new edition the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) which was just released along with its cousin, The New Oxford American Dictionary. These works are where the 2000 new words appear including Muggle, staycation, paywall and unfriend. The ODE and the NOAD are compilations of the common usage of words.

Dictionaries reflect of our ever changing culture. They provide a window into the social habits and communications of our neighbors and a historical reference for generations to come. Consider all the many forms available to us today. We have dictionaries of medieval words, slang dictionaries in almost every language, and urban dictionaries in which everyday people post new phrases daily. Instead of worrying about what words are added to them let us celebrate what they represent-- our passion for words.
by Robyn Chausse


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