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How Words Enter the Language

A student recently e-mailed me to enquire how a word officially becomes part of the English language. He was certain that there must be some formal process involved. Surely, he said, there must be a body such as a group of lexicographers that decides when a word is really a word, as otherwise English would be anarchic.

People ask variations on this question a lot. Many believe that when (and only when) a word appears in a reputable dictionary it receives formal validation and can take its place in the English lexicon. Even the Guardian newspaper fell into this trap recently when it referred to bonkbuster* as having “gained official recognition as part of the English language”, when it was included in the most recent update of the Oxford English Dictionary online.

My young correspondent description suggests a delightful scenario. As one of a number of researchers who collect evidence of new usage for the OED, it intrigued me to think that I might be a member, even a junior member, of a shadowy cabal that sets the standards for all well-educated English speakers. No — the process really is as anarchic as it seems. This is actually a relief, since I’d hate to be held personally responsible for the current state of the language.

In the world of today’s lexicography, usage is king. We are, in the language of the business, descriptive dictionary makers: we record, we collate, we analyse, and we describe what people actually say and write. If enough English speakers decide that some word or phrase has value, to the extent that those who encounter it are likely to need to consult the dictionary in search of its meaning, then it is put into new editions. Not always very quickly — there is merit in taking one’s time to build up a picture of usage and so avoid being misled by temporary enthusiasms and short-lived fashion. And if enough speakers decide that a word no longer means what the dictionaries say it means but something else entirely, then we have to note that, too. You may feel that such changes amount to misuse — and certainly terms do change because of ignorance or misunderstandings — but that’s largely irrelevant to the job of the dictionary maker.

This standpoint is sometimes misunderstood, and as often disliked. People who consult dictionaries most commonly want the tablets of the law, not a mirror to language. In practice, dictionaries take a middle course between whole-hearted descriptivism and prescriptive edicts. They advise when a form is controversial, or a word is going out of use, or is shifting its sense. But what they don’t do is leave out such changes or make personal judgements on which words are worth including and which not.

Some people hate this anarchy so much that there are occasional calls for a body to regulate the language, control what should be in and what out, and to advise users on what is good English and bad. The example of the Académie Française is often put in evidence. The Académie attempts to maintain the purity of the French language (for example, by providing lists of French words that are suitable alternatives to the influx of English neologisms, such as replacing tie-break with jeu décisif, walkman with baladeur, or software with logiciel), but its influence, though great, has not been decisive. There have been determined attempts to amend the way people use languages: Noah Webster was influential in changing some spellings in the United States after the 1820s; Kemal Atatürk changed Turkish to the Latin script in 1928 and removed many borrowings from other languages; the Singapore government has instituted a Speak Good English session every April to persuade local people to use international English rather than their own patois called Singlish; there have recently been spelling changes in both Dutch and German. Making that kind of change requires political will and muscle and is hard even then. Canute had it right — there are some tides which authority is unable easily to resist or control.

In the end, the decision about what appears in a dictionary lies with its editors. And that means there are — in theory — as many possible decisions about what constitutes correct, current English as there are competing dictionaries. There are constraints, of course, that lead them to converge — they are all working from the same evidence, after all, and must satisfy the same book-buying public that their works are accurate and up to date. And sensible dictionary publishers provide checks and balances at various stages to reduce the inevitable subjectivity of individual decisions.

So, no English Academy, I’m afraid. No huddles of earnest scholars, debating the current crop of neologisms (like bonkbuster) and marking them with the tick of official acceptance or the cross of oblivion. Just a number of individual dictionary editors, trying to make sense of an inchoate mass of material thrown up by shifts in fashion, personal usage, inventive genius, new technologies, and a dozen other factors. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

*The OED’s definition of bonkbuster: “A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters between the characters. Popularized by the British writer Sue Limb, writing under the pseudonym ‘Dulcie Domum’, in her humorous newspaper column ‘Bad Housekeeping’ (1990-2001)”. The word is from the common British slang bonk for “an act of sexual intercourse”, on the model of blockbuster.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 13 Jul 2002