Some words are(n’t) better than others

Michael Proffitt, the new Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was recently interviewed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (see video here) commenting on the place of the largest English dictionary in the modern age.


Although the O.E.D. was one of the first dictionaries that was launched online in 2000, its creators are still thinking of ways of catering to new generations of users who are turning to web searches rather than looking up terms in the dictionary. The O.E.D. currently lists 800,000 words (double the size of its first edition) and a new revised edition will come out in only about 20 years. It remains to be seen if the new edition will exist in its traditional print form by mid-2030s.


The interview touches on the prescriptivism-descriptivism debate at 4:38, when Amanpour addresses the question of the newest words in the English language, such as selfie, unfriend and defriend, which have, according to popular opinion, entered the language from the social media scene.  Proffitt reveals that this is not exactly the case, as the O.E.D. would show. Many of these so-called neologisms have actually been around for centuries. The verb unfriend was used long before Facebook or even the Internet for that matter. Its first use was recorded in 1594, albeit with slightly different meaning. The abbreviation OMG, which is nowadays commonly associated with netspeak, is found in as early as 1917 in an admiral’s letter to Winston Churchill. Proffitt also comments on the criticism of the use of the word literally, which is picked out by pedants as particularly problematic, although words such as actually or really reflect similar changes in meaning. The biographies of these ‘problematic’ words that are compiled by lexicographers question the claims about language decline brought about  by neologisms or variations in spelling and orthography. Many such innovations are not great changes at all, and linguistic developments are surely not restricted to the present. On another note, as Proffitt concludes in the FT interview, lexicographers would quickly lose their jobs if there weren’t for language change.

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