P096: A Conservative Dictionary Can Only Describe The Past

Here’s what might be an uncontroversial statement: the way we speak to each other changes over time. If you don’t believe me, try and read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol aloud. Bet you don’t get past the word “farthing.” It’s abundantly clear that human communication patterns evolve, driven by the method of connection, the topic of the day, the tone of the moment. However, when it comes time to document this natural evolution, the process is anything but uncontroversial.

Last month, Oxford Dictionaries named the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji the “word” of the year and the response was, uh, consistent. Thankfully, Caitlin Dewey took a moment to pull apart the incentives at play when dictionaries pull stunt PR moves and it all is starting to make sense. According to Dewey:

  1. Sales of reference books, including dictionaries, are down 37% since 2007, and traffic to their owned websites are down as well, due to Google’s ever-increasing sophistication.
  2. Dictionaries looking to offset these losses are differentiating their product by adding modern words and phrases.
  3. The dictionary then rides the wave of publicity around these announcements, driving awareness and positioning themselves as the most relevant, up-to-date dictionary.

This is a the only way forward. A dictionary cannot be frozen in time. Yes it’s true that dictionaries have been disrupted by search engines, but in order to remain relevant at all, they need to have the most useful, most diverse set of words. A dictionary that closes itself off from the outside world becomes an artifact: ossified, rigid and useless. Those who would close the borders of our dictionaries would sentence our language – and those who speak it – to the inbred backwaters of our cloistered past.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron