The Oxford English Dictionary recently announced that it is adding several words to its pages, including initialisms that we typically associate with email and texting: LOL, OMG, IMHO, TMI, BFF. (There are plenty of news stories about it but this one is a brief overview).
The reception to this news — at least among my peers — hasn’t been positive. Some feel that it’s annoying. Others feel that it’s a sure sign of the end of the world.
But I’m okay with it. Here’s why:
We tend to think of the dictionary as the golden standard of language (especially the Oxford English Dictionary!). We turn to the dictionary to look up a word or its meaning, or to ensure that we are using a word properly. Thus, the dictionary takes on a role of being an impeccable reference tool and the standard by which we measure language. (And, we tend to extend that role assignment by holding up the dictionary as our standard of intellectual sophistication, thereby forcing us to conclude that we are decaying intellectually because these recent initialisms have been added).
The dictionary should be a golden standard of language. But the dictionary has an additional role that we don’t consider: It’s a portrait of today’s culture. It’s a slice of now.
That makes it tricky for the dictionary people: They need to create a resource that is not only impeccable as a language reference, but they also have to deal with the messiness of today’s language usage. If dictionaries were only the golden standard of language, words would rarely change. If dictionaries were only a slice of now, we would not be able to trust them to tell us how to use words.
An example would be a word once used to describe African-Americans. You know the word I’m thinking of. At one point in life, it was acceptable to use that word. (Socially acceptable, I mean, not morally acceptable). If the dictionary was only a golden standard and nothing else, it would continue to define that word today as a socially acceptable word. Fortunately, we’ve progressed socially, and the dictionary has altered the word’s meaning to reflect modern sensibilities. Okay, that’s an extreme example and there are many other less controversial words to which this has also happened. Basically, our language would still be Shakespearean if we only used the dictionary as a golden standard and not as a slice of now.
So I’m okay that the OED has added LOL, OMG, IMHO, TMI, and BFF to its pages. I don’t think it highlights the intellectual decay of modern youth. Rather, I think the dictionary is giving us a slice of now. Encyclopedias are facing the same challenges today. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s nothing new.