Its in the dictionary, innit
In its latest edition of The Scrabble Dictionary, Collins has included the words "thang", "grrl" and "innit". By including terms such as these, are dictionaries becoming ever better, or are they doing a disservice to language and hastening their own obsolescence?
English is a living, evolving spoken language and it has always been the role of the English dictionaries to document the common usage of the spoken language rather than prescribe it. There is a widely-held misconception that "The Dictionary" (as if there was only one), is the "official" definition of English, that all the words in there have been approved by some erudite powers that be, and if it aint in the dictionary then it aint a proper word.
That may be true in some languages, but it isn't the case in English. The English Dictionaries (and there are many of them) are compiled to reflect common usage, not to dictate it. In that sense, if people frequently and lastingly use the word "thang" instead of "thing" then it is right for dictionaries to include it.
But what about "grrl"? That's a deliberate misspelling of girl, and sometimes its spelt "grrl" and sometimes "grrrrrl". If you didn't know it was a substitute for girl then you would have no clue how to pronounce it. Is that how we want the English language to evolve?
So how does the dictionary publisher decide what to include? The criteria for many has long been that if a word or phrase is found in print from several different sources then this is evidence that it is widely understood and accepted, and is therefore a candidate for inclusion. But that rule of eligibility was conceived long before desktop computers, when an article in print would have already passed through several layers of editor and proof-reader, each eliminating spelling errors and shorthand slang. Any new words that survived that process would be included out of necessity.
Now, in the internet age, original writing is a rarity, and proof reading less so. Companies issue a press release and many otherwise respectable publications repeat it verbatim, complete with any jargon it uses, making it much more difficult to decide when a phrase is genuinely in widespread usage. Added to that, the internet is a mass of unchecked articles such as this one you are reading now, as well as comments in forums, blogs, tweets, chatroom logs, and so on. Should we be using this material as reference source for our language?
The value we used to place on dictionaries was that they gave us common and unambiguous ways to communicate, the spelling to use that other people would understand, explanations of how words are usually pronounced, and definitions of what they mean. Now though, dictionary publishers seem too happy to court controversy and grab cheap publicity by including ever-more controversial words invented by marketeers and computer geeks such as "pwned" and elevating it to word status. In the long term, this just damages the credibility of dictionaries in general.
If a dictionary is going to include grrl then I think there is an even greater case for including other more commonplace corruptions such as plz, r, u, urs and wtf? Which will be the first major dictionary to go for the publicity jackpot of using "2" as an acceptable form of "to", "two" and "too" and to hell with the ambiguity it causes? And if they did so, would they then also feel obliged to accept "in2" as an alternative form of "into", "2day" for "today", and "22" as the name of a ballerina's skirt?
27th May 2011
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