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From Book to Tech, Language Evolves

Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806. Dissatisfied with the breadth of what he had conceived, he embarked on decades of intensive work to expand his groundbreaking creation into a more comprehensive reference, An American Dictionary of the English Language.

According to his own account, he was no mean slouch and learned 26 languages (including my favorite, Aramaic) to unearth etymologies and tease out the root sources of many of the words we use today without a second thought.

Webster completed his dictionary during his year in Paris in 1825, after study at Cambridge. The expanded result now held 70,000 words, of which some 12,000 had never before appeared in a dictionary.

After Webster’s death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam got publishing and revision rights to the 1840 edition. They published a revision in 1847, which added new sections to the retained main text, and a second, illustrated, update in 1859. 

In 1864, building on their success, G & C Merriam put out a greatly expanded edition, the first to change Webster's material, overhauling his work but retaining most of his definitions and of course, the well-respected title. Revisions followed that were described as being "unabridged." 

By 1884, the iconic dictionary offered definitions of 118,000 words, famously “3000 more than any other English dictionary." We’ve always been addicted to maximalisms in language as well as in sports and sports cars. More words! Bigger wrappers. Larger bosoms.

A year earlier, when “Webster’s” had by then gone into public domain, the name was changed to "Merriam-Webster, Incorporated" with the publication of Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Getting beyond the standard dictionary’s own etiology, those of us in the language dodge take frequent recourse to the reference buttons as well as the hard-copy versions (yes, Virginia, they still sit on our library and office shelves). An updated M-W is a thing of beauty -- as well as of necessity. 

For gamers, note how annoying it is in online games like Bookworm to type in a common word like “blog” and find that the game’s dictionary has no knowledge of this dog-eared term — long in use for almost 20 years. Or take the medical heart device used for decades, the stent; it is similarly nonexistent in the minds of the callow youths who encode those so-called game dictionaries.

So what’s the big whoop now?

The latest M-W ref adds 150 choice new entries to the indispensable basics. The culling process, which combs millions of books, articles, presentations, interviews, mags, movies, and ephemera or stabiles, insures that most of the new words are those we probably already know. (Or they would not be widespread enough to merit inclusion. Einstein.) But rather than including only what you’d expect, latest-word entries from 2013-2014 in fact include many older terms that made it into the book and gained new currency with various technology or industry shifts, not new brouhahas (fracking, born in 1953). Carbon footprinting, anyone?

Dictionaries represent the obvious. Language is a dynamic, throbbing, vibrant realm of human interaction. For a comparison, look at Beowulf. It encapsulates the orthography, pronunciation and era-related meanings of Olde English from c.1100 A.C.E. Shakespeare is a giant leap away, introducing literally 15,000 new words into the flexible, multihued English tongue.

Updating our malleable, fascinating, and chiaroscuropic tongue is cause for celebration, and not only for lexophiles and logophiles.

What might surprise some is that while “new” words occur in the latest edition of M-W, such words as paywall (no money, no get subscription), crowdfunding (raising money via online sources), dubstep (musical beat with a set drum pattern, 2002), and speaking from the distaff side, (the British meaning of) brilliant (superior, great, cool) are all included in this edition.

One of the most famous new words is hashtag. Who can forget Michelle Obama’s dour visage as she peered at her follower 2008 Tweeple -- people who use Twitter and tweet -- and held aloft a magic marker’ed “#Bring Back Our Girls” in connection with 276 teen-aged Nigerian Christian girls abducted, raped, and converted by Boko Haram, terrorists? Twitter has spawned an entire mini-Twitterverse of words taking their parentage from adding “tw-” to their base.

But far from being brand-spanking new, many “new” locutions incorporated in each new edition are in fact hoary and venerable. Steampunk, which sounds fresh-minted, refers to films or books about the 18th or 19th century with punk attitude, dates actually from 1987. In my mind’s eye, the opium-drenched, eye-filling 1971 Altman classic McCabe and Mrs. Miller — depicting the muddy, prostitute-inflected, sheriff-run towns of the Old West — fits the steampunk bill too.

Foodie talk is along for the vocab ride, too. We get the high-calorie Canadian poutine (french fries, thick gravy and cheese curds, 1982), and the exotic but great-for-crosswords pho (1925!), a colorful Vietnamese soup of beef or chicken with rice noodles), the humble but useful pepita (1942),and the July 4th-ism of freegan (one who eschews buying foods, opting instead for dumpster-diving and grazing what others jettison in waste receptacles). To which we add: Eww. 

Then there’s turducken (chicken stuffed into duck stuffed into turkey; all boneless) and chickenarian, a foodie who subsists on the hen and her husband. Some of the new inclusions are quite grizzled with age: Baby bump from the People world of gossip in the past two decades and more; fangirl, from back in 1934.

The culling process for word inclusion is based on a formula developed through density of usage and citations in the public lit, general walkabout use, and the specialty, techno- and emerging industries’ vocabularies that have come to dominate so much of our discourse.

One natural outgrowth of the popularity of video games is the gamification of once-boring work -- or school tasks, as home entertainment leads inexorably to mission-creep elsewhere. Hyphenates play an important part in neologisms (as well as in my personal armamentarium). For the past half-century or so, our exciting language itself, like blue jeans -- and rock -- permeates the globe. Every nation now salts its dialogue with terms that were solely the purview of the Anglophone West, primarily the United States and Great Britain and Oz.

And while we all know Miley Cyrus’ in-your-face-or-other-body-parts twerking, and the infamous Anthony Weiner’s weineriferous selfies, and the pleasant advent of insourcing,1983 (opposite of outsourcing), the majority of our emergent vocabulary comes, not accidentally, from trending tech, innovative solutions, and online connectivity, the intersecting of our miasmic pop culture with all the art, gadgetry, and device-heavy nonstop social networking (1998) 24/7 communications that lead to so many unintended traffic accidents and bumping into lamp-poles.

Spoiler alert (1994): No matter how we might consider ourselves aloof from these phenomena, the digital divide (1996) and immersive technology, we can any of us access a million hotspots (2013) in a bazillion high-end coffee shops, but can’t really unfriend (2003) [from] them.

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