Tuesday, 16 September 2014

New words

More from the book of 'Things that really irritate Rik':

No, not the first part, the second. The bit about how new words are killing the language. I actually followed this one up to check if Conan really said it, and was disappointed to find that he did - normally I like the guy, but I think his sentiments are badly misplaced on this one.

In fairness, it's not as bad as the normal run of memes on this topic, which tend to suggest that the mere fact of a new word being entered into the dictionary is evidence of the death of the language. It feels like it happens every time new words are added to the Oxford, and every time, it makes my blood boil.

Language isn't sacred. Powerful? Yes. Vitally important? Certainly. But immutable, incorruptible, unchanging? Quite the opposite. The world is constantly changing; to insist that a language not change is to demand that it detach itself from the world. Contrary to Conan's quip, change in language is evidence of good health, not imminent death. Want to see a dead language? Latin, which has been preserved near-perfectly across centuries.

Why was 'selfie' picked as the word of 2013? Because Oxford's research saw its use rise by seventeen thousand percent in that year. Like it or not, many people talked about selfies in 2013, many of them in order to criticise or disapprove. Selfies may be an abhorrent phenomenon (they're actually not that bad, as human innovations go - vanity and self-absorption are hardly the worst of our vices), but if people are going to talk about them, someone had better keep a note of what they mean.

The presence of a word in a dictionary, or even on a list of words influential or important in a given year, isn't an endorsement of what the word refers to. It can (and probably does, in the case of 'selfie') indicate a great deal of disapproval, and since it's quite difficult to disapprove of something you don't have a word for, surely it's better to have the word than be without?

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