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Why words like ‘squee,’ ‘moobs’ and ‘YOLO’ really end up in the Oxford English Dictionary



The Washington Post
Saturday, September 17, 2016

For many logophiles, the announcement of a new batch of words in the Oxford English Dictionary is a delight.

The dictionary did not disappoint this week, when it ushered in more than 500 new and revised words in its quarterly update.

There were splendiferous tributes to the 100th birthday of children’s book author Roald Dahl: Dahlesque. Scrumdiddlyumptious (“for those occasions when scrumptious simply won’t do”). Oompa Loompas. The witching hour.

Also making its debut was “ ’Merica” the noun, “a truncated form of ‘America,’ now often used ironically or self-consciously draw attention to emblematic or stereotypical American ideals, institutions or traditions.” (The word takes numerous alternate forms, including “ ’Murica” and “ ’Murrica.”)

And then there were the new entries that might make you think you had accidentally clicked on UrbanDictionary.com instead: Moobs. YOLO! Resting b---h face. Squee!

But these words belong in the Oxford English Dictionary every bit as much as, say, neuroplasticity or cheeseball, two other new entries, according to Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press. After all, the dictionary is a record of the past 1,000 years of English – one that includes “everything that is considered to ever have been a significant word.”

“We’re sort of taking the long view,” Martin said. “The slang words of today, if they rise to a level of being something you can imagine that, in 50 years, someone might encounter and wonder, ‘What is that?’ – we want there to be a record of it.”

What the internet has done, in a sense, is speed up and document more clearly the evolution of the English language, she added.

“Not only is it not new but it is also an incredibly powerful force that has driven the creation and dissemination of new vocabulary,” Martin said. “What I think is interesting is how we persist in thinking that the language of the internet is different from the English language, even though most of us spend 90 percent of our time communicating over the internet.”

A closer look at some of the new words reveals that they’re not as new as one might think. Squee, for example, has represented “a high-pitched squealing or squeaking sound” since as early as 1865, when it was first used in this sentence: “’Wheen, squee, rhepe, twiddle’, went the third violin.”

For the next 150 years, it continued to be used periodically, but mostly for inanimate objects and nonhuman animals. Then, in a 1998 Usenet newsgroup post about “Star Wars,” one person “squee”-ed in the sense we know it today: “Thanks to everyone that wrote, I’ll be getting one in the mail soon! :) Squee! I am so happy.”

And the rest is internet history.

“Under normal circumstances, we might eventually have added (squee) when we were revising that section (that included the word) because it’s pretty low frequency,” Martin said. “And then all of a sudden in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the usage of squee becomes much more common.”

This happens more frequently than not, Martin said. Part of the delight in going down the OED rabbit hole is learning that the etymology of many words actually extends back to long before the Web existed. For example, when the dictionary’s editors sought to make a new entry for “O.M.G.” in 2011, lexicographers were surprised to discover the first instance was from a 1917 letter written to Winston Churchill.

According to the dictionary, the axiom that inspired “YOLO” (you only live once) can be traced back to a 19th-century English translation of “on ne vit qu’un fois” in French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons.

The internet is also responsible for highlighting more easily colloquial language, especially from younger people. Before, if a teenager “squee”-ed in the middle of a forest but no one was around to hear it, did he or she really make a sound? Now, the internet records everything.

“If you were a teenager (before social media) and you were passing a note in class and that included the slang you were using, lexicographers would never notice that unless they were looking for graffiti in high school bathrooms – which is a thing that lexicographers used to do,” Martin said. “But now teenagers are on Twitter.” (Note: They’re probably not on Twitter anymore. Twitter is for “the olds.”)

The omnipresent documentation of teenage slang also can mean that a word moves in and out of use – or at least in and out of fashion –more quickly.

“YOLO is a great example of something that went from being cool teenage slang to passe teenage slang at the speed of light because it was able to be commodified,” Martin said.

In part because of how much work it takes to keep up with how English has evolved, the dictionary’s editors are in the midst of updating only its third edition. If printed, the OED would probably span more than 40 volumes, and it’s estimated this revision will take more than 30 years to update.

“The Oxford English Dictionary generally doesn’t add things until they have been in existence for a fair number of years,” Martin said. “There’s not been a deliberate relaxing of the standards to allow these things to enter the dictionary.”

The public can help. The OED regularly issues appeals online to seek help in tracing the origin of a word, such as in the dictionary’s ongoing quest to find the first use of “email” to mean “electronic mail.” As Martin explained to the Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser last year:

“Since 2012, the OED’s editors have been appealing online for help tracking down early quotations of words, old and new, when editors don’t think they have the full story of a word’s origins and usage. Basically, the editors ask readers to leave comments – available for the public to read – directing editors toward any leads or quotations that might fit the bill. The editors respond to those requests as they come in, also in the comments, and when the word is successfully antedated, the appeal is closed.

“Many of these appeals have been successful, such as the ones for ‘bromance’ and ‘FAQ’ and the use of ‘the Company’ to refer to the CIA.”

Here are some of the other words that made it into the latest update:

“Clickbait,” “clickjacking,” “clicktivist.” Discussion over the emerging noun “clickbait” - “Internet content whose main purpose is to encourage users to follow a link to a web page, ESP. where that web page is considered to be of low quality or value” – prompted a review of other words like it: clickjacking, clicktivism and clicktivist.

“Everything that we had in our files that began with click, we considered for inclusion,” Martin said. Thirty years ago, OED editors revised entries alphabetically. Now, they periodically focus on batches of similar words based on their relevance, regardless of where they fall in the alphabet.

“Let’s do the important words and the ones that are changing the most,” Martin said. “It didn’t seem right to keep going straight through the alphabet. We didn’t want to leave the entry for electric as it had been in the early 20th century.”

Asian crossover words

Those scanning the list of new entries may also notice that, sprinkled throughout, are words that might have jumped straight off a Filipino menu: pancit (Filipino noodles), kare-kare (an oxtail stew), lechon asado (a whole roasted pig on a spit) and leche flan (a custard made of egg yolks and condensed milk), for instance.

There’s also rendang, an Indonesian or Malaysian dish of meat slow-cooked in coconut milk and spices, and mamak, a male head of household in those countries. Hongbao, a “traditional Chinese good luck gift of money” given in red envelopes, appears for the first time as well.

That is intentional: Oxford English Dictionary editors are making a greater effort to include English words as they might evolve within immigrant communities, Martin said. This particular update included new words that arose from a special project researching the language of Southeast Asia.

“The access to resources that we have today allows us to have a broader view of what the vocabulary of English is than people did 150 years ago and so we take very seriously the responsibility of looking at English as it’s spoken everywhere where people speak English,” she said. “That’s something we’re increasing attention to.”

“Fuhgeddaboutit“

“Will copywriters ever capture the vernacular of New York City?” lamented a 1996 William Safire column in the New York Times Magazine. His answer: “Fuhgeddaboutit.”

That appearance was one of the earliest documented uses of the interjection “associated especially with New York and New Jersey . . . used to indicate that a suggested scenario is unlikely or undesirable.”

Twenty years later, it appears the Oxford English Dictionary has finally granted Safire’s wish.