Word Play

January 12, 2010

I have been away from my post for a long time. Not that I ever just linger here for consistent periods of time like a good blogger, but every so often I do peek my head up and comment on something or other. Call it selective, stagnated, and long-winded Tourette’s. Which is not Tourette’s at all, really. Nothing like. Hmm… (Mental note: quit relating every compulsion to the heartbreak of Tourette’s.)  More like a sporadic caffeine-inspired dire compulsion to darkly pontificate about things that matter very little as they pop into my mind. Or the occasional desire to be a smartass in print. Yeah, that sentence is much more readable. Anywho, I haven’t been doing this at all for awhile. I’d like to say I have a good reason, but really, I think my mind’s just been taking a vacation while I rearranged some lifey stuff. Totally a real term. Shut up.

That being said, I was horrified when my coworker Margret directed to my attention the 2009 Merriam-Webster’s sample list of new words added to the dictionary (as I usually am when they post these things), and I felt the need to address it. You lucky people, you (both of you). And I am actually extracting a small part of this post from my initial IM response to her when I first read the list, mainly because I didn’t feel like rephrasing it. Deal. The sample list of words is as follows:

  1. acai
  2. carbon footprint
  3. cardioprotective
  4. earmark
  5. fan fiction
  6. flash mob
  7. frenemy
  8. goji
  9. green-collar
  10. haram
  11. locavore
  12. memory foam
  13. missalette
  14. naproxen
  15. neuroprotective
  16. pharmacogenetics
  17. physiatry
  18. reggaeton
  19. shawarma
  20. sock puppet
  21. staycation
  22. vlog
  23. waterboarding
  24. webisode
  25. zip line

First and foremost, I was somewhat perplexed that some of these words weren’t already in the dictionary. For instance: earmark, naproxen, shawarma, missalette, or zip line. “Zip line”? Really? These seem to have been in circulation for a long enough time in our language, and also—related side note—who doesn’t love chicken shawarma?

Huh. Well, glad those were added. Now space children of the future can put down their nano-amusement-bots, pick up Merriam-Webster, and understand how Gramps and Grams amused themselves as tots through the art of proper sock destruction. (I thought perhaps “sock puppets” might have been included the year Shari Lewis died, but apparently no one does anything to commemorate our deceased geniuses these days.) …Joke… This new dictionary entry actually references “sock puppets” as a term for false identities rather than actual puppets. I just really like talking about Shari Lewis.

Some of them were totally appropriate: fan fiction, carbon footprint, flash mob, locavore, neuroprotective, pharmacogenetics, waterboarding. Yeah, I can get behind those. I wouldn’t mind reading those words in the Washington Post without quotes around them. They have legitimately penetrated the language of enough proper-speaking adults to warrant an official addition to our language. Welcome, words.

My primary problem is with the Web 2.0-esque words-du-jour that have come up as a passing fancy to suit current pop language trends, but are so far without the longevity required to make such silly combo words (or as Margret aptly called them, “Frankenwords”) legitimate. Words like “frenemy” and “staycation” (just as I typed these, Spellcheck caught them, and my eyes stung with bitter tears as I hit “Add to Dictionary”). Though “staycation” is albeit an interesting addition, due to I think a considerable reflection of our economic times. But it is nonetheless a word for Urban Dictionary, where slang and pop terms are dutifully defined for the less colloquialism-savvy, slightly more erudite (and often more prudish) person. That’s where the fad words go. Words uttered by hip kids, that get a 15-minute spotlight due to opportunistic marketing gurus with their ears pressed up against the clubhouse door. Something like Urban Dictionary is both useful and necessary for our vast collection of terms that aren’t quite accepted English terms. They’re still words that are used. They require definition. Somewhere. Not in the English Dictionary.

In past years, I’ve been similarly incensed by the addition of words where the users couldn’t find the appropriate word—whether due to ignorance or conversational laziness—and created a Frankenword like “ginormous”, added to Webster in 2007: a combination of “gigantic” and “enormous” (both synonyms, so the word itself is redundant and therefore ridiculously unnecessary). Next year’s addition prediction: “whole ‘nother”. Just watch for it. Yeah. It sounds just as stupid.

I actually think the dictionary has been overrun by chimps. And they keep flinging crap at a dry erase board all year, and whatever word it resembles at the end of the year is going to be added. Margret pointed out that she thinks the word “frenemy” was first publicly coined on Sex and the City as part of one of Carrie’s notoriously bad puns.

I don’t know which is worse: a dictionary run by chimps, or a dictionary run by Carrie Bradshaw. Of course, they’re all subject to the evolving, or—devolving—English language, since the widespread use of online social networking reared its ugly head. So any way you have it, we’re probably screwed. Considering they add new words based on the frequency of new words in circulation of the average person, and that this is largely being facilitated by Web 2.0, and furthermore that the majority of Web 2.0 subscribers are under 30, that means our dictionary is being moreover written by glittered-up, Miley Cirus-wanna be, texting, sexting, web-journaling teeny boppers, rather than mostly journalists who are held by a somewhat stricter vernacular standard. (Not that I don’t enjoy glitter or sexting.) Gone are the days when terms like “Gag me with a spoon” slowly faded into obscurity after the fad. Now these things are being cemented in the pages of our language. I may sue. I don’t know. Note, I have a deep love of our language. I will argue for its integrity like anyone else.

Just to be clear—its’ not that I think these words shouldn’t be in conversational circulation. That’s not my point at all. These are widely used words and shouldn’t be in the blind spot of anyone who takes in media. Web 2.0 is a wonderful thing that has placed so much more power out of the hands of government and big-industry control and into the hands of the common person. I work for a dot-com. I am an avid Facebook enthusiast. I text. I IM. And I use many of these words, even in this blog. I just don’t believe they merit formal entry into our standard dictionary. Their place is exactly where they’re used—online, by normal people in conversational blog posts (like this one) and Facebook messages and text messages. Places where you can use improper sentences (like this one), and it’s totally acceptable. Not in, let’s say, a high school textbook.  “Benedict Arnold, America’s original frenemy, was best known…” Not in a term paper. “The magnitude of the ginormous outcry to the genocide was one of the motivating factors…” Not in a historical documentary. “Had Clara Barton merely taken a staycation, the American Red Cross might never have come to be…” Ya know?

I am on the fence about “vlog” and “webisode”, as these are legitimate names for things that don’t already have other names and are certainly crucial to keeping up with the quick pace of technology. I don’t particularly like the words, since I think these combination words lack imagination. I guess that’s personal taste. Still, due to this rapidly progressing technology, I wonder about their ability to stick even until the end of this year. Doesn’t mean they won’t, but it’s certainly a possibility that we might outgrow them before they even have a chance to be looked up for the first time. And so for those, I might have waited another year to add them. Again, personal taste.

Now. “Memory foam”?? Okay, Tempur-Pedic®. Quit flooding Merriam-Webster’s writers with relentless crank calls. They break easily.

But the weirdest, in my opinion, was their Word of the Year :  “distracted driving”. Tell me how this word (phrase, actually) is more superior or topical than any of the other words in that list. …Oh wait, the government is launching a major Distracted Driver campaign right at this very moment, you say? Merriam-Webster—et tu, Brute? Et tu? Can the political machine really be greasing the palms of everyone? Even our friends who control the language?

The answer is, ooooooooof course it can! And we realize that now more than ever. Which is why, after much hemming and hawing, I’ve finally come to concur that “distracted driving” is somewhat worthy of Word of the Year (though more for what it represents than the probable intention for its award, but that’s neither here nor there). Congratulations, you guys. How charmingly and deliciously apropos to choose a word with a government agenda.

Please feel free to argue any of this; this is highly personal opinion, and I find it incredibly interesting to hear how people feel their language should be molded. So please, feel free. Both of you.

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4 Responses to “Word Play”

  1. Don said

    Why do you hate our language?

    • Ms. M said

      God, you always slap me with the questions I actually have to think about, Don. Ummm, I’m going to go with…..general villainy? Yeah. General villainy. Final answer.

  2. Christian said

    “…and understand how Gramps and Grams amused themselves as tots through the art of proper sock destruction.”

    I suspect the definition they’re adding isn’t the literal “puppet made out of a sock,” but rather the metaphorical definition, the online community one: a fictional online identity created to give the appearance of dialogue when otherwise there is none. For instance, a sock puppet could give glowing reviews for a user’s merchandise or written works, set up the user’s punchlines, or give the appearance of a voice to what would otherwise be a strawman argument.

    In especially twisted cases, the user declares that he or she is going to commit suicide, and the sock puppet (actually the same user, remember) confirms that this has actually taken place. The user then retires the old screen name, adopts the sock puppet as a primary online persona. This is called “pseudocide.”

    • Ms. M said

      Yeeeeeees, that would probably make more sense, as I was damn sure the irreverent absurdity of Sifl and Olly had garnered enough of a cult following in the late ’90s to warrant a common vernacular nod. In fact, I like to think all MTV shows have had the most significant impact on our formal language, so that puts my mind at ease. “….But wait…..is she…..serious?……”

      Hmm. As sock puppets (the actual socks) are clearly a recent technology, it is safe to assume that the ’90s was probably when this was added originally to the dictionary for the literal definition. Shh. Don’t argue. That’s totally true; don’t bother looking it up. However, as sock puppets (the metaphor) is the effect of a more recent technology, I’m willing to agree that yours is probably the dictionary definition to which they were referring. In which case……….well done, Webster. Clearly this needed to be in there, for people like me.

      Rewrite!
      Ahem: “…and understand how Gramps and Grams amused themselves as tots through the art of proper old screen name destruction, known as ‘pseudocide’.”

      Beautiful? Beautiful.

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