The OED gets more responsive

People can be averse to change, even when that change is necessary & inevitable. The recent news that the Oxford English Dictionary is adding twitterati and meh have caused a bit of a fuss on the interweb because of this aversion to change, however there’s a more fundamental issue at play and, to truly understand the significance of this, we need to look at the big picture: Why has the OED become more responsive and faster to adapt to the changing nature of the English language?

The Oxford English Dictionary used to take 10 years to accept a new word or a change of meaning. If the purpose of the OED is to be the “authority on the English language” then, in the internet age, a 10 year cycle would exclude many of the words we use everyday – like smartphone or hashtag. . The OED has had to respond and change its evaluation criteria or risking fail to deliver on its own promise. How can it be the “authority on the English language” when it doesn’t reflect the changes to the meanings of everyday words like Tablet or Troll?

If one of the greatest symbols of tradition and British heritage has had to change in response to the connected society, what does this mean for the rest of us? What risk and opportunities does the ever changing digital landscape present for other organisations?

If you said “I need to buy a tablet” in 2009, most people would think you had a headache. It took 2000 years for the popular meaning of the word “tablet” to go from carved piece of stone to a form of medication…. and then a mere 5 years for the most common use of the word “tablet” to mean a handheld device.

Once upon a time, scriveners were the equivalent of the internet. As the designated readers & writers in a village, scriveners would be the communications gateways; the people you asked if you wanted to send or receive a personal message. Stories or news from other places  would arrive via travelling tradesmen or wandering minstrels and it would take years for that news to travel any distance. Language remained fairly static, as did culture and the way things were done.

Today we mock newspapers for publishing yesterday’s internet; the word “awesome” means acceptable and people say “LOL” with no understanding of the irony of doing so.  These are some of the words are being added to the OED

  • E-cigarette (noun): A cigarette-shaped device containing a nicotine-based liquid or other substance that is vaporized and inhaled, used to simulate the experience of smoking. [2007]
  • Meh (interjection): This interjection, expressing indifference or a lack of enthusiasm, was probably popularized by the cartoon series The Simpsons, but it was already in use online by 1992 – two years before it was used in the programme.
  • Hot mess (noun): A hot mess referred to ‘a warm meal, especially one served to a group’ in 1818, but now it is more commonly used as a slang term for something or someone in extreme confusion or disorder. The OED’s earliest quotation for this usage dates from 1899 in the Monthly Journal of the International Association of Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.”
  • Twitterati (noun): Users of the social networking service Twitter collectively, typically referring to the group of prolific contributors or those who have high numbers of followers. [2006]
  • FLOTUS (noun): (The) First Lady of the United States. [1983]
  • Webisode (noun): A short video, especially an instalment in a drama or comedy series, which is presented online rather than being broadcast on television. [1996]
  • Fo’ shizzle (adjective): This slang term originated in the language of rap and hip-hop and means ‘for sure’. [2001]
  • Freegan (noun): A person who eats discarded food, typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants, for ethical or ecological reasons [1997]. It can also be used as an adjective.

This accelerated language transformation is a signifier of other rapid changes happening to our society and behaviour. In the internet era, language adapts and changes very quickly and the OED arbitrates the passing buzzword fads from the long-term etymology, while maintaining a relevant, useful guide to the English vocabulary. At Narrative we look at the big picture too, separating the fads from future requirements to help organisations succeed in the rapidly changing digital landscape.