Thursday, December 1, 2011

You Are What You Speak

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.

On Text-Speak


  1. Ahhh, Woot. I don't know why that particular one bugs me, but it does. Reminds me too much of the Howler Monkey's going ape at the zoo. But I use the much derided LOL too frequently so I keep my mouth shut bout Woot.

    OH and I always took LOL to mean Laugh out Loud. That one's been around since the late '90s when I first jumped on the net.

  2. Dagnabbit! Now, juss hold on ri-cheer! Southerners have tried for years to alter the country's perception that all of us speak like citizens of Lil Abner's Dogpatch. It's also widely thought that we don't know how to use a dictionary. Using my Webster's New world College Dictionary, I frequently reference it for spelling, usage & defintion in normal language purposes, but never for media-speak. For example, I referenced the rarely used Southern term "picayune," and, luckily, it was listed. (It means petty, small minded or picky.)

    A few years ago, media-speak steps into the picture and we lose geographic linguistic characterisics from all areas of the country. There are no accents in media speak. Adios Yankees, hicks, Valley Girls etc!

    When in "chat mode" with friends in England, both media-speak & common language is somewhat different from ours.(Example: Vacuuming is known as "hoovering" in England.) Truth is, I can speak far easier with my Italian friend than my English friend and it's because he doesn't use media speak. I speak English very well & have decades of typing experience, however, I'm not a pro typing nor decyphering media speak. Actually, I can type it out faster than trying to remember the abbreviations and certainly faster than decyphering them!

    One benefit of media-speak is that someone could curse me black & blue via phrases such as, G2H, D2M and the old standby, FU (it isn' a university) and I wouldn't realize it. It's a real possibility that I'd thank for cursing me out not realizing they weren't giving me compliments. My media-speak abbreviated vocabulary is just that limited!

    Media-speak entered the music industry with the action packed group, LMFAO and their catchy hit "I'm Sexy & I Know It." Seeing the band perform the hit, the lead singer removes his tear-away pants (I said OMG!)& completes the song standing in his briefs. (Give him a few years and he won't dare to do this again!)

    Eventually, I'll learn more media speak, but one thing is certain, I'd prefer to be told verbally "I love you," read it typed out or written cursively--the old timey way. No number or mathematical signs please!

    Ending my comment, I say, G2R!!

  3. A lot of acronyms predate the internet, such as FYEO (for your eyes only), fubar, or, for that matter, OK (Old Kinderhook/Oll Kerrect). Jeep came from GP (in WW2 under license from Willys, the Ford version, the most common, was GPW; most soldiers thought the GP meant General Purpose; it didn't -- it was just a manufacturing designation -- but the belief influenced the name Jeep anyway). As for LOL, perhaps decibels and quantity are mutually convertible.

    River, I say picayune (not the New Orleans newspaper) -- perhaps less frequently than I say petty or nitpicking but more often than I say piffling. But then I also munch on pralines.