Use the Right Word, Don’t Wait for the Dictionary

Today the Oxford University Press announced the release of the new 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED), which contains more than 400 new entries including such contemporary pearls as cyberbullying, domestic goddess, gastric band, sexting, slow food and textspeak.

While I am a grammar nut and therefore a fan of dictionaries and of the OED in particular, my reaction is not one of excitement. Instead, I’m thinking, “So what?”

If you’re a writer – and on some level, we all are – you should already be using these words. Just because mankini is in this new edition, doesn’t mean you should manipulate your copy to include it. Similarly, edupunk isn’t in there, but does that mean you should avoid it? Of course not! Widespread usage is how words enter the dictionary in the first place.

Simple advice: Use the right word, now and always.

As I wrote in a previous post, writers must be experts in their subject matter, and that includes knowing the current vernacular of the industry. Based on this expertise, you should judge whether it makes sense to use recently coined terms. And because writing isn’t an exact science, you will need trust your judgment.

So what is the true value of a word’s inclusion in the dictionary?

At the moment, I see the value as slim to none. Some words may gain short-term popularity as they make headlines (for example, CNET’s coverage featured woot in the headline, giving the word a major boost), but most of the 400 new entries will go unaffected. Inclusion in the dictionary is only one step on the long staircase to permanent relevance and usage.

Over time, many of these words will increase further in popularity, auto-correct and spell check will recognize them, and news outlets won’t feel obligated to define them at each inclusion. But it’s not an exact science. Wait another 50 years and many of the 400 newbies will disappear from our collective memory. Popular new words in 1911 included motorist and radioactive (still around), but also macronigram and kinematograph. Know what those mean? If not, how about consulting a dictionary. Hey, maybe that’s what dictionaries are good for!

What’s your perspective on the new edition? Which words do you want to see in the mainstream? Let me know in the comments!


~ by SFcopywriter on August 19, 2011.

One Response to “Use the Right Word, Don’t Wait for the Dictionary”

  1. Oxford needs to do more of the same to stay relevant in this environment. It won’t be long before Urban Dictionary has higher readership than Webster’s, and the Scrabble dictionary represents a more complete account of the English language than the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
    Wait, does that describe the future, or the present?

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