For the love of words
Margaret Hynds | Monday, November 3, 2014
I really like words. No, that’s not strong enough — I love them.
Learning a new word is such a wonderful feeling; just this week I learned what “antediluvian” means, and I’ve been itching ever since for a prime opportunity to use it (Antediluvian: adj. 1. of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible; 2a. extremely primitive or outmoded; 2b. made, evolved, or developed a long time ago, according to Merriam-Webster.)
In March, University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan gave a TEDx talk on “What makes a word ‘real?’” and, if I’m being completely honest, it changed my life. I used to consider myself an English purist. I vehemently denounced slang and would not hesitate to correct anyone who used ‘impact’ as a verb or ‘invite’ as a noun.
Yes, I was that person. Please forgive me, friends.
Allow me to explain my complete reversal of opinion. Professor Curzan teaches English, specializing in language, and she sits on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionaries with 22 winners of the Pulitzer Prize. In her TEDx talk, she questions why dictionaries are treated as infallible resources while students are taught to question and research nearly all other sources.
Dictionaries are, in fact, authored by real, living, breathing people. They aren’t handed down to us on a stone tablet by some sort of all-knowing language god. So, why is the dictionary the ultimate authority on what is a word and what isn’t? Great question.
Language grows and adapts to what we need, filling gaps as they arise. When a word does not exist to describe something we see or experience, we create one. And, over time, we change how we use words that already exist. Even Shakespeare took part — he has been credited with the creation of dozens of words and phrases throughout his career. Of course, plenty of curmudgeonly people see this as the degradation of language as we know it and the end of good taste.
Merriam-Webster actually has a user-submitted dictionary — its “open dictionary” — filled with new words and slang that haven’t earned official recognition. Its description reads, “You know that word that really should be in the dictionary? Until it actually makes it in, here’s where it goes.” Among its most recent entries you can find “awesome sauce,” “snackage” and “bougie,” among others. If I’m being honest, I use many of the words in the open dictionary at least weekly.
In her talk, Professor Curzan said the following: “Here’s the thing. If you ask dictionary editors, what they’ll tell you is they’re just trying to keep up with us as we change the language. They’re watching what we say and what we write and trying to figure out what’s going to stick and what’s not going to stick.”
So, what makes a word a word? According to Curzan — and now me — we do. What we say and write matters because people speaking and writing literally define and create language. Our word usage — for better or for worse — dictates what “qualifies” as a word simply because we collectively have chosen to use it.
How awesome sauce is that?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.