Wassup, Banh Mi, and Stonewashed: The OED Entries You DIDN’T Hear About

he internet has been abuzz and atwitter recently about the addition of OMG and LOL to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But OMG and LOL are only two entries on a long, varied list of additions to the venerable dictionary. (Fellow word-nerds rejoice!)  Joining their ranks are expressions like “wassup” and “smack talk,” gastronomical terms like “banh mi” and “gremolata,” fashion and textile jargon like “stonewashed,” and poly-sci phrases  like “state-run” and “non-domiciled” that have assumed new relevance in the U.S. and U.K., respectively.  As a literary and American studies scholar, I especially was pleased that “heteronormative” and “heteronormativity” also made the cut.

Given the range, if not quantity, of words on the list, I’m surprised that media reports on the latest OED freshman class (e.g., exhibit A and B, to name just two) are only discussing OMG, LOL, and related terms (such as “heart,” as in “I ‘heart’ New York’ or derivatives of this phrase like “I ‘heart’  sweatpants”)?  I mean, OMG!  Why don’t headlines proclaim, “‘Muffin Top’ Moves into the OED” or “‘Singledom’ Lonely No More in OED”?  (LOL.)

Unraveling an answer to this question begins, I think, with understanding the OED’s purpose, and then, what is required of a word for inclusion in the publication.  The OED touts itself as the “definitive record of the English language,” and for a good reason: as a “historical dictionary,” it differs from standard dictionaries, which focus on the contemporary meanings of words.  The OED records this information, but it also traces how a word’s meaning and usage has evolved through time.  The OED also provides dated, contextual information to illustrate the major milestones of a word’s etymological development.  According to the OED website, this material (really, brief snippets of text) is drawn from “3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to films scripts and cookery books.”  The OED is a comprehensive record of the English language, then, because it catalogs the meaning and etymology of words that are drawn from a vast range of sources.  Looked at from a different perspective, the OED is not a purely academic or highly specialized record of English.

A variety of issues are considered in determining whether to include a word in the OED; however, one significant criterion involves evaluating if a word has become a ubiquitous part of our lexicon. The FAQ section of the OED website explains that a word has attained such a presence when it has “reached a general level of currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood.”  A word is eligible for inclusion, then, when it has become ingrained in our vocabulary.

I think that the addition of OMG and LOL to the OED has garnered so much attention for a variety of reasons.  The March 2011 update suggests that communicative gestures typically reserved for more casual media, like SMS texts and Twitter updates, have achieved not only a palpable cultural presence, but also one that’s being legitimized at a particular (intellectual) level.  After all,  although the OED is a comprehensive record of the English language, it nevertheless is maintained by and largely is intended for scholars or an expert/technical audience.  Though empirically unsubstantiated, I think my claims about the  OED’s audience are not far off the mark.  The OED is not an open-access publication, and subscriptions to it are very expensive and usually only can be afforded by large institutions, like universities.  Case in point: I’ve only ever had access to the OED because of my university affiliation.  The intense focus on OMG and LOL in reports on the OED ‘s March 2011 update thus appears to be more a comment on the OED’s scholarly creators and audience than a critique of the cultural forces which have contributed to the omnipresence of OMG and LOL in written discourse.  Specifically, the attention given to OMG, LOL, and the like at the exclusion of other new entrants to the OED can be read as an implicit dig at the intelligentsia.  But in what ways are media reports about OMG and LOL a put-down of the academy or  the act of being scholarly? I’m not sure, although I have a few theories.  Perhaps some believe that the OED’s official documentation of OMG and LOL signifies a (pathetic? hollow?) attempt by the academy to stay relevant in a world where the very practices and traditions scholars have long valued no longer hold much sway.  Perhaps others feel that scholarly study of OMG and LOL represents a larger, equally as dubious trend in the academy: the elevation of contemporary pop-cultural fluff to serious study.

While I think that recent media coverage of the OED implicitly critiques academia–that is, the dictionary’s users and primary audience–these reports also are taking a swipe at contemporary culture, in general.   Let’s be honest: most people regard OMG and LOL as valley-girl speak or teeny-bopper parlance–pithy modes of speech that supposedly point to the vacuous  nature of their users.  The OED’s inclusion of these terms indicates that they’re being used by a much wider population both in earnest and ironically (see, for instance, paragraph two of this post).  Thus, media coverage of the OED’s decision seems to ask: does the ascendancy of OMG and LOL from niche slang to widespread jargon indicate a willful “dumbing down” or infantalization of our culture, even when these terms are employed humorously or meant as snark? (And yes, snark is a noun here.)

I think such self-reflexive examinations of the relationship between language trends and cultural developments are great.  And this is why I’m intrigued that, outside of the OED, so little  attention has been given to the other terms in the latest batch of initiates.  I though it was interesting that a host of non-Anglo or fancy-schmancy culinary terms had made the list. In “Other New Words in the OED,” Katherine Martin provides a pretty interesting overview of additional food/food-related terms that made the included in the OED’s March update; she also enumerates other themes from the list, as well, such as a spate of Australian-English vocabulary and terms related to drinking alcohol.

What do you think is the most interesting inclusion on the OED March 2011 update?  What might this inclusion suggest about recent cultural developments?  Anyone care to weigh-in on why the March update has so many food-related entries (pun perhaps intended)?


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Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Everything in Between

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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