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Legit Evolution

Cremisi's picture

 After I had asked whether the words “ain’t” or “snuck” were actually words, my third grade teacher told me to look them up in the dictionary. She said that if I found them, they were words. If not, then they were improper. Simple as that. Is this, however, an incorrect way at viewing words? Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, was the very first comprehensive (as comprehensive as we are aware of) compilation of words in the English language. The commencement of the dictionary helped to shape the world of literature, professional publications, and writing. The dictionary, upon its every-decade renewal, deems words as useful and true if they are included within its published and meticulously edited pages. The dictionary set a standard for modern writing and usage for good reason--if no one could agree on a definition (or use) of a particular word, how could it possibly be used as an effective tool for back and forth communication between individuals? A dictionary holds a sort of esteem that makes it a go-to device to determine if a word is “real” or not. In recent years especially, with the openness and overwhelming flow of new ideas on the internet, there is a new, evolving language that has yet to grace the pages of a dictionary. Most certainly, LOL will not be in the Oxford-English dictionary, but either any native speaker of English or any semi-internet savvy individual knows the meaning of this word. Is it therefore kosher to view new, non-printed words as bad or improper? Though the dictionary does an excellent job at helping individuals properly spell words, does it actually do much for determining if something is a word or not? Can “right” and “wrong” really extend to new, evolving words that people use everyday?

In truth, words do serve a general purpose. They help evade confusion, and help clarify our thoughts and speech. The semantics of a word help to smooth away potholes in the already-bumpy road of trying to understand another human being. If someone were to say, “I wouldn’t talk to that fellow over there, he is in a rather irascible mood,” it’s helpful to know that the word irascible means easily angered rather than lonely, happy, or sadistic. However, the English lexicon seems to be treated as a sort of club. It is very difficult to make new make new words be recognized by the dictionary. The F word was not included in the dictionary until 1972 despite being a favorite saying of angry teenagers from the world over. There is a massive universe of information that hasn’t been recorded in any dictionary. It’s difficult to label a word as “truth”, “fiction”, “good” or “bad” when it is, in fact, the actual language that real people use. 

Shakespeare, often considered the best writer of all time, introduced numerous words into the English language by contribution and innovation of new prefixes and suffixes. Though it’s slow-going, many words commonly used today have a very different definition to the populous than what is considered “correct” in the dictionary. “Fabulous” for example: it’s a word today to describe something stylish, or exceedingly chic or well-performed. However, “fabulous” actually means something is highly unbelievable or resembling a fable. The same goes for “fantastic” (used to describe something as awesome or great but actually means that something is fantasy-like) and “incredible” (again used to describe something good but actually meaning that the object it is describing deserves no credit). Though we use words for clarity, words can evolve, almost unnoticeably over long periods of time. They can swap meanings and begin to depict different moods. Though they may have the same characters in them, we can begin to associate different meanings to words. In that case, what could be found in a very old dictionary could be considered simply wrong today. Words are useful to us because of their meaning. If already-established words can change meaning and become nearly new, then new words should have just as much real estate in the dictionary.

Erin Mckean, lexicographer and the creator of the online dictionary Wordnik (an online dictionary that encourages users to submit new words they have come across which Wordnik then researches, finds examples of its usage in esteemed journals or forums, and then electronically publishes it), argues that words’ validity have nothing to do with their “official” publication in tomes of dictionaries. “All words are real whether they are useful or doesn’t have to be in the dictionary to be a real [at Wordnik] we are interested in what people actually do with words and language, not what we would like them to do...we are trying to chronicle the evolution of words and simply speed up the process of the dictionary.” 

Language itself is a human invention; words are merely sounds that the majority of people have agreed convey a certain meaning. A rock is not a rock but simply something that we have named a “rock”. We have words for objects without names (we call it it, thing, or stuff) and we blend words to create new words (brunch and linner).  If enough people agree on a meaning of the word, then it is a word. if the word can be used in a coherent conversation where both parties understand its semantics, then the word exists. The often-used word “legit” is a far reach from its supposed origin of “legitimate”. However, when someone says, “legit” he or she means that something is cool, safe, or good. If all parties in a dialogue understand the speaker’s (or writer’s) original intent of the word, the actual word is of little consequence; it doesn’t matter what the word is even if it sounds silly or fake, because all it has to do is do the job of a word--convey meaning. 

In addition to this, language needs words to evolve, help clarify, and shape our speech (and writing). Erin Mckean describes the phenomenon of a sort of “survival of the fittest” for words. If two words become fully synonymous in both a literal and semantic sense, one word will disappear and go out of popular usage. This means that in order for a word to continue to be used, it must have an original, unique meaning, no matter how slight the nuance is. Here, blatantly, is the exclusion principle applied to words: if one word doesn’t adapt, evolve, or bring anything new to an environment, it will be run out by another.



Paul Grobstein's picture

words evolving

 Interesting extension of a common childhood concern (what makes a word "legit"?) to the realm of evolution, the notion that words, like species?, are not fixed entities but rather are born, change, and die out.  Would be worth making more explicit comparisons of the two realms (eg "brunch" as blending rather than vertical genetic transmission?); are there "dictionaries" in biological evolution? are they essential for world evolution?  what role do they play?).