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Defending LOL’s Dictionary Inclusion: Or, The Beautiful Evolution of Language

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By James Furbush on March 25, 2011

You’ll no longer have to turn to the Urban Dictionary when trying to remember what OMG, LOL, or FYI stand for. The March 2011 update to the Oxford English Dictionary has sent word nazis into a tither over the inclusion of the first graphical symbol to represent a word — that would be “♥,” as in I [heart] Huckabees — and several acronyms made famous by their use on Facebook or in text messages.

But these new expressions of language are just several among the 45,437 new words and meanings added to the latest revision of the OED, which is considered to be the most authoritative and comprehensive record of the English language.

“The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, is supposed to have dignity. It is supposed to enshrine the words that actually mean things. Just because people are using these words doesn’t mean that they deserve to be in the dictionary,” writes The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, who, BTW, puts the “pun” in punditry. “You are a dictionary, and you are supposed to be a watchdog of language, not the one handing ID’s to every silly neologism so they can slip past the bouncers. Stop trying to be cool and do your job.”

That’s pretty much the same line of reactionary and angered thinking you’ll hear from the supposed gatekeepers of language over the dictionary’s inclusion of these Internet acronyms. Oddly, you won’t hear these same people pop a blood vessel at the inclusion of ethnic words like banh mi, taquito, or kleftiko; nor will they lose their shit when you kindly remind them that doughnut hole, California Roll and the phrase “ten second rule” were also included in this update. Or, the clever definition for “muffin top,” which describes the protuberance of fat above the waistband of a tight pair of trousers. How sublime is it that muffin top isn’t actually the top of a muffin, but a sly put-down of fat people?

Or that “tinfoil” made the list, as it relates to crazy conspiracy people?

The revisions to the OED are not made on a whim. It’s a carefully considered process. Language, the simple act of human communication, is an evolutionary process. Hello, where would we be without Shakespeare? We’d still be in the linguistic dark ages. More than a gatekeeper for the purity of language, one that abates the supposed curse of hipness, the OED is a remarkable record of the English language’s evolution.

Take, for instance, the thought process behind the inclusion of the heart symbol:

Graeme Diamond, the principal editor of the OED’s new words group, said: “While symbols do become spelt-out words relatively frequently, it’s usually only with a mundane meaning as the name of the symbol – “star” for *, “hash” for #, and so on.

“It’s very unusual for it to happen in such an evocative and tangential way, and this is due to the special place the heart (as an organ of the human body) occupies in the language.

“In English, since the late 12th century the heart had been thought of as the seat of love and affection.”

There’s poetry in that reasoning; there’s deeply considered reasoning for why the heart symbol should be included. It’s essentially been with us since the 12th Century. It’s not some neologism adopted by texters or chat rooms. It’s usage has evolved as humans have evolved over the last 900 years.

The OED is a 127-year record of where our language came from and where it is probably going. Is it painful to realize that expressions such as “FTW” or “LOL” or “OMG” are where our language has currently evolved to? Absolutely. But that’s what’s exciting about language. The verb “to run” has 645 senses, phrases and idiomatic uses. That’s unbelievable!

You never know how humans are going to incorporate slang and expressions and clever wordplay into their every day use. That uniqueness as a species should be celebrated, welcomed and championed even if, on a certain level, the words being folded into history embarrass us.

A full list of words, from “about round” to “yidaski” is here.

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