A facility with language remains the distinguishing feature of humans (a few hand-signing chimps notwithstanding), and language is at the core of every human culture. What better way, then, to discern cultural trends than to look at new words and usages? For the English language there is no equivalent to L'Académie français, which dictates what is proper French and what isn’t. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is as close to an “official” dictionary as exists, and it doesn’t lay down rules so much as struggle to keep up with evolving usage by educated speakers. Every year it adds new words and definitions while it deletes some others.
There is not a very high hurdle for a word to jump in order for it to be added to the OED, but there is a hurdle. OED researcher Graeme Diamond explains, “A rule of thumb is that any word can be included which appears five times, in five different printed sources, over a period of five years.” Longevity matters more than frequency, so flash in the pan slang rarely makes it.
What new words leapt the hurdle this year? Over 900 new words (about average) joined the pre-existing 600,000 retained in 2011, and some, in my opinion, aren’t even words, which really does say something about the culture. The newly added “<3”, for example, means “heart” or “love” (look at it sideways), as in “I <3 the band Nickelback so much.” (I don’t <3 Nickelback, by the way, though I don’t actually stab at the radio’s pre-set buttons when one of their songs airs.) LOL, a number of other texting abbreviations made the grade, including “LOL” (lots of laughs), “BFF” (best friends forever), and “IMHO” (in my humble opinion). “FYI” (for your information) dates back at least 70 years in common use, but the OED didn’t add it until this year, I suppose because it seemed to be three words rather than one; if “BFF” is a word, however, there was little excuse to continue to exclude “FYI.” (While admitting that some acronyms do become words, e.g. the 70-year-old “snafu” [situation normal, all fouled up], I prefer to consider most alphabet-soup combos to be merely abbreviations of words rather than words in themselves, but I’m not employed by the OED.)
Lest we forget that the compilers are ivory tower academics, the dictionary adds this commentary on texting abbreviations: “The intention is usually to signal an informal, gossipy mode of expression, and perhaps parody the level of unreflective enthusiasm or overstatement that can sometimes appear in online discourse, while at the same time marking oneself as an ‘insider’ au fait with the forms of expression associated with the latest technology.” Uh-huh.
“Sexting,” “cyberbullying,” and “mankini” (man’s bikini) were added to the OED, which all look as though a distracted typist missed a few keys or the spacebar. Also new are “jeggings” (tight non-jeans that look like jeans) and “retweeting” (forwarding a tweet – “tweet” in its social network sense was added in 2009). Well, wOOt for that! Yes, “wOOt” (hooray) was added, too.
I’m a little bummed that the OED deleted “cassette tape” this year, though. Hey, I still own and play cassette tapes.