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Collins English Dictionary

It’s always a problem promoting new editions of dictionaries. They are unsexy books that are rarely reviewed. And there’s too strong a belief among the public at large that there’s actually only one “dictionary” in the world, an eternal, unchanging authority, so why buy a new one? One British publisher has gone the populist route this year, adding words of temporary visibility to the 2010 update of the Collins English Dictionary to attract press coverage and so put its work before the public.

Don’t get me wrong — if you are going to buy a solid, dependable, weighty, single-volume British dictionary, you won’t go far wrong with this one. But I do wonder about some of the additions this time, which are heavily biased towards evanescent words from the online world, television and politics.

Cleggmania, for example, was coined in the British press to mark the sudden rise in popularity of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, following the leaders’ debates in the general election earlier this year. It has never been used other than by newspaper pundits and is dead, in large part because the LibDems, partners in the coalition government, are already tainted by going along with swingeing budget cuts. The editors have even included Cleggstasy, a second Clegg-inspired neologism, which is even rarer but equally defunct. Another election term added, bigotgate, was applied by the press to a gaffe by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, who was overheard on a radio microphone describing a Labour supporter who accosted him in the street as a bigot; it had little usage at the time and is as forgotten by the British public as the incident that gave rise to it. Also included are new politics, which the new edition defines as “a form of consensual politics promised by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition”, and Big Society, a catchphrase of the new prime minister, David Cameron, even though nobody seems to quite know what it is.

In other nods to current popular culture, the new edition includes BGT, which sounds like a sandwich but is an abbreviation of the title of a popular TV show, Britain’s Got Talent, and simples!, a daft catchphrase from a TV advertisement featuring the fractured English of a Russian meerkat called Aleksandr.

The online world is well represented in other additions, including formations based on the name of the micro-blogging site Twitter, such as tweetheart (a Twitter user who is much loved or admired by other users); tweet-out (a greeting sent to one’s friends via Twitter); and tweetable (a message short enough to be posted on Twitter). Facebook is represented by the specialised use of panic button (a term that goes back to US military pilots of the Korean War), a button for alerting the police if a user thinks another user on the site is committing a criminal act. That iconic technology item the iPod also gets its own entry, defined as “a type of small portable tablet computer with a touch screen”, a low-key description that might bring Apple’s marketing manager out in a cold sweat (presumably the iPad is too new to be added). Mobile phone texting has provided other entries: sext, a text of a sexual nature (and sexting, the process); drexting, sending a text message while drunk; and intexicated, to drive while being distracted by either reading or creating a text.

My guess is that a goodly proportion of these words will be quietly removed from future annual updates, perhaps to be replaced by others of similar lexicographical fragility. I wonder whether this publicity trick might backfire by reducing the authority of the work as a whole? I do hope not.

Page created 6 Nov. 2010

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Last modified: 6 November 2010.