One could argue that slang words like ‘hangry,’ ‘defriend’ and ‘adorkable’ fill crucial meaning gaps in the English language, even if they don’t appear in the dictionary. After all, who actually decides which words make it into those pages? Language historian Anne Curzan gives a charming look at the humans behind dictionaries, and the choices they make.
A great TEDx talk by Anne Curzan on words and dictionaries, worth watching or at least reading the transcript. Here’s a quote:
At some level, we know that there are human hands behind dictionaries, but we’re really not sure who those hands belong to. I’m actually fascinated by this. Even the most critical people out there tend not to be very critical about dictionaries, not distinguishing among them and not asking a whole lot of questions about who edited them. Just think about the phrase “Look it up in the dictionary,” which suggests that all dictionaries are exactly the same. Consider the library here on campus, where you go into the reading room, and there is a large, unabridged dictionary up on a pedestal in this place of honor and respect lying open so we can go stand before it to get answers.
Now, don’t get me wrong, dictionaries are fantastic resources, but they are human and they are not timeless. I’m struck as a teacher that we tell students to critically question every text they read, every website they visit, except dictionaries, which we tend to treat as un-authored, as if they came from nowhere to give us answers about what words really mean. Here’s the thing: If you ask dictionary editors, what they’ll tell you is they’re just trying to keep up with us as we change the language.
I’m reminded a lot of Erin McKean’s TED talk on dictionaries, but that’s probably because the general public continues to have the same misconceptions about them.
Watched this in class today. Wanted to give a standing ovation. This is so on point.