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Could Facebook's new software improve our recognition of new slang?

On Tuesday, the company received a patent for software that identifies new terms used on the site that aren't yet in the common vernacular. Dictionaries have long added new words, but the software also removes words once they've fallen out of common use.

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    In this Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 photo, Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster Inc., thumbs through the index card files at the dictionary publisher's headquarters in Springfield, Mass. Facebook recently patented software to use the social network to find new words and phrases before they become popular, something traditional dictionaries have long made a priority.
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When it comes to language, Facebook wants to get ahead of the curve.

The company recently patented software that scours its social network for new terms and phrases, then stores them in an evolving “social glossary.”

The company’s patent, which was granted on Tuesday, is particularly hunting for neologisms — new pieces of language that are being used, but haven’t yet entered the common vernacular.

Neologisms include words such as “staycation,” while rapidly evolving technology is responsible for terms such as “blogosphere,” or “netroots” — which Merriam Webster defines as “the grassroots political activists who communicate via the Internet especially by blogs."

In its application, the company says it is looking for “slang, terms of art, portmanteaus, syllabic abbreviations, abbreviations, acronyms, names, nicknames, re-purposed words or phrases, or any other type of coined word or phrase.”

But it isn’t interested in phrases that are defined in “widely-available dictionaries." The software works by first spotting terms, checking to see that they are not already being widely used, then adding it to the social glossary. It will also review the terms to see if they’re still being used, including by soliciting feedback from users. If a word is determined to have fallen out of favor, it’s removed from the glossary, the application says.

Facebook hasn’t said how the software will be used, but its patent application provides some examples, including the potential to improve software that aims to predict what a user will type by including words and phrases that aren’t yet in the dictionary.

Recently, example sentences in the widely-used Oxford English Dictionary have also provoked a debate about language and stereotypes.

In January, Michael Oman-Reagan, an anthropology doctoral candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland, discovered several example sentences which he described as sexist, pointing particularly to the word “rabid,” for which the dictionary used the phrase “rabid feminist" as an example.

But after he pointed out the sentence to Oxford on Twitter, he received what he later described as a “snarky” reply.

“If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism…” Oxford replied, sparking a debate about that pitted concerns about the publisher’s intentions against charges of political correctness.

But that wasn’t the point of his initial posts, Mr. Oman-Reagan wrote in a Medium article, noting that the use of the phrase had previously been highlighted by writer Nordette Adams in a blog post in 2014.

“When Oxford editorially selects example sentences reproducing sexist stereotypes, they are making implicit, prescriptive statements about gender and language,” he wrote. “We might also ask Oxford: Why do you choose to use gendered examples for words that are not about gender, like nagging, grating, housework, doctor, rabid, etc?”

Katherine Connor Martin, head of content creation at the publisher, later responded to his tweets in a blog post, saying that the dictionary’s use of example sentences “sometimes falls short of the ideal.”

But, Ms. Connor Martin wrote, the phrase “was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning.”

Instead, she said, the dictionary could have used a more generic example, such as “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan.”

Oxford and other widely-used dictionaries have also prided themselves on staying hip by adding new words on a regular basis. But some additions, such as the word “swag,” which was added to an online dictionary released by Disney in 2013, prompt groans, including critics who dismissed the word as overused as early as 2008.

“Get a new motto people,” one blogger wrote. "Stop being sheep! Unless you’re a rich sheep. Then you can brush your teeth with swag, smack peons with swag, and get it tatted on your chest like Tupac if you fancy to." Commenters on the post also debated whether the term had been used correctly.

By removing words or offering users the chance to edit them, Facebook's social glossary software could potentially be more responsive. A Facebook product designer credited with creating the social glossary software says the company often focuses on revamping its products to reflect how people use them.

“Facebook is a fascinating place because on one hand we try to design products that are foundational and useful for as many people as possible,” says Jasper Hauser, a design manager at the company, in a 2014 interview posted on the site. “This makes it a bit impractical to think about any specific group of people. On the other hand, we increasingly find that different cultures, geographies and platforms require us to rethink how people actually use our products."

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