There’s a Word for That

One thing students don’t realize (until you point it out to them) is that language isn’t static. Like any other discipline, it continues to evolve. One case in point is the July 2009 announcement from Merriam-Webster regarding the addition of new words to its dictionary:

Hardworking word-lovers everywhere can now learn the meaning of the word staycation (“a vacation spent at home or nearby”) along with nearly 100 other new words and senses added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. America’s best-selling dictionary offers its new 2009 entries in its updated print edition and online at Merriam-Webster.com.”Our language evolves in many ways,” said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc. “As we’ve seen from our Open Dictionary feature on Merriam-Webster.com, people enjoy blending existing words, like combining ‘stay’ and ‘vacation’ to make staycation. Staycation is a good example of a word meeting a need and establishing itself in the language very quickly. Our earliest record of use is from 2005, but it seems to have exploded into popular use in 2007.”

“Another example of this kind of creative wordplay from this year’s list,” said Morse, “is frenemy: one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy. But, in addition to these ‘portmanteau words,’ we have added new words from more predictable categories, like science, health, technology, and popular culture, which have also seen widespread use across a variety of publications.”

Many of the new words reflect the importance of the environment (carbon footprint, green-collar), government activities (earmark, waterboarding), health and medicine (cardioprotective, locavore, naproxen, neuroprotective), pop culture (docusoap, fan fiction, flash mob, reggaeton), and online activities (sock puppet, vlog, webisode). Other words added include haram, memory foam, missalette, and zip line.

What Merriam-Webster fails to admit is that our language changes daily, and new words don’t wait to be officially recognized. So rather than accessing the Merriam-Webster online dictionary for new terms, word-lovers are better served by sites such as Wordspy and Urban Dictionary.

Wordspy takes on a recent word such as vegangelical and not only defines and parses it (n. An extremely zealous vegan who is eager to make other people believe in and convert to veganism; blend of vegan and evangelical) but also traces it to its earliest citation (in this case, to the blog The Smoking Vegans in 2005).

Wordspy is a fun site to browse, and readers are welcome to comment on entries and suggest new words as well. Its biggest strength is that it offers citations for all the words it lists. But the question must be asked, “Just because someone uses a word, does it become a word?” To put it another way, “Are all neologisms created equal?” Sure, Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, and Lewis Carroll coined words all the time, but do the rest of us carry enough clout to do the same?

Enter Urban Dictionary. Users enter words they’ve created or recently heard, and readers vote the words up or down. Rather than attempting to ajudicate, Urban Dictionary simply allows other users to enter their competing definitions for those same terms or phrases. Often you’ll find that multiple readers submit similar definitions, and even provide the sources for you to confirm the facts. “The time,” for example, is submitted by two readers who cite its origin in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both agree that “the time” is a euphemism for intercourse.

Urban Dictionary is fun to read for its spirited arguments. I also discovered that the tags attached to each word keep me reading from one word to another. While teachers will appreciate that some readers actually try to spread knowledge about our language (see the posts about Catch-22), you should be warned that some submitters use language that is inappropriate for children, and for this reason Urban Dictionary is likely blocked in your school.

A third site for neologisms is Buzz Whack. While the words listed here are clever and even familiar, this site lacks the interaction and attempt at scholarship found in the previous two. But it’s worth a look, and you might even find a resaon to like it.

How can teachers make use of these sites? Certainly as add-on dictionaries. But I’d say just alerting students to neologisms will make them more aware of the fact that these words are springing up all around them in an attempt to name new phenomena (sexting is one such unfortunate term which needed to be coined). Students can collect and share these, and even be challenged to create their own (an easy task if they choose to create portmanteaus, ala Lewis Carroll).

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7 Comments

Filed under Recommended Sites, Strategies and Structures, Teaching Topics

7 responses to “There’s a Word for That

  1. Matt

    Merriam-Webster.com actual has an “Open Dictionary” which includes countless neologisms–many user-generated. The definitions are pretty good, it encourages contemporary citations, and it’s browsable.

    Example (from a word you cite above):

    Search results for ‘vegangelical’:
    Displaying 1-1 of 1 word(s) starting with ‘vegangelical’
    Page: First | 1 | Last

    vegangelical (noun) : a vegan who seeks to convince others to become one
    Submitted by: Nora from Arizona on Dec. 01, 2009 12:51

    Displaying 1-1 of 1 word(s) starting with ‘vegangelical’
    Page: First | 1 | Last

  2. Your post is timely, as we are working on Word Origins with my sixth graders right now.
    🙂
    Kevin

  3. Ted Leach

    I’ve used sites like Urban Dictionary before — one year I worked up a grammar unit incorporating slang, sort of in the style of “The Transitive Vampire” but with students using contemporary slang. My premise was that using new language would hook them in a bit more to the topic, and help them see how language changes. It worked reasonably well.

    Personally, I still refuse to use the word “ginormous.” I don’t care if it’s in the OED… I have to draw my own lines somewhere!

  4. Fantastic! You touch on many of the same points that I did in one of my entries but you also explored several topics which I failed to recognize. I am truly impressed. I will keep you blog in mind in the future as I write more.

    Sincerely,

    Dorian Wacquez

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