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Lit Feast: this woman wants to change how words get added to dictionaries

Shobhna Iyer | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 7:04 IST

What if you'd realised the value and simple usefulness of the word 'selfie' before it became the cultural behemoth that it did?

There've been unofficial explanations out for a while, but it was only in 2013 that the word entered the blessed pages of the Oxford English dictionary.

But that's many years of people trying to explain to each other what the word really means.

Erin McKean of Wordnik.com wants to change all of that. Her motto? Every word should be 'lookupable' - a word us at Catch HQ have already latched onto and cannot imagine life without.

As she tells the New York Times, Wordnik documents words as and when they are used, not as they are pored over and studied by lexicographers. Though there is no denying the important work that the good folks over at Oxford, Cambridge and sundry dictionaries do, it's true that they're sometimes behind the times.

Chew on this: the word 'hoverboard' was only added to OED this year, though its first use, and assumed significance in cultural conversation, dates all the way to the movie Back to the Future II, released in 1989. Of course, its resurgence now has to do with the fact that the movie depicted an imagined 2015, and ours is sadly one without aforementioned hoverboard.

Over the last six years, Wordnik has collected words found in random corners of the Internet, recording them for posterity not as a stamp of approval, but as a "Hey look, even just a couple of people have used these words in specific contexts and we think it makes a lot of sense."

Selfie is just one example, these words are everywhere; and we're talking about not just slang. New words are created all the time not as replacements for other words, but to describe something for which no appropriate term yet exists.

As the Times cites, there's 'farecasting', or trying to predict the best date to buy airline tickets. Think of 'podcasts', too; it's a near-ubiquitous word now (thanks, Serial), but really it was the best attempt to arrive at a word to describe an audio show that you can download and store on your iPod.

I'd give you more examples that I came up with myself, but clearly I'm not going to be a lexicographer anytime soon. (I do love throwing in a good ''natch' every now and then, though.)

Why this is important

Why does this matter? Because, more than anything, it proves that language is constantly fluid, and evolving faster than traditional organisations know what to do with.

For most of human civilization, the written word has been the tool of the powerful and elite. Spoken language evolved, changed, adjusted, but the written word was often...well, written in stone.

As with most cultural trends in the new millennium, bless the Internet for changing that.

"Language itself changes slowly, but the internet has sped up the process of those changes so you notice them more quickly," David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Bangor, told BBC News.

But words shouldn't have to be around forever or become universally applicable for them to be lookupable, says McKean. A new word can be easily defined by a casual definition, and can be in fact the replacement for the definition; for example, the word 'cookprint', or, the energy you use to prepare the food you eat. The next time I have to go on a 'environmentalism or nothing' rant, the word 'cookprint' - in the conversation's context - is likely to make perfect sense to the person I'm likely lecturing and socially distancing forever.

Words like these are everywhere. Somewhere, at some point, someone decided to name the floppy disk the floppy disk (Kids: here's what a floppy disk is). The word 'floppy' has little to do with the function that the disk served from the 1970s onwards, and yet, just that word alone suffices when talking about it (unless you're talking to the aforementioned children).

A million missing words

McKean has important ambitions. She wants to hire a data analytics firm to trawl the internet for these words in online publications; she started a Kickstarter for the same, one that's already met its goal.

How're they going to know to differentiate the lookupable words from the gazillion others - never mind gibberish? It's as simple as punctuation; by searching based on the use of quotation marks and hyphenation.

It's the perfect clarion call for language enthusiasts to indulge themselves on their obscure blogs.

Watch McKean explain why it's good to make up new words, no matter what stodgy purists say:

First published: 28 October 2015, 5:28 IST
Shobhna Iyer @shoiyer

After studying to be an archaeologist at JNU, Shobhna worked in travel publishing before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not arguing over en and em dashes, you'll find her raving about her new favourite album, drinking copious amounts of coffee or ganna ras and struggling to come up with witty tweets.