Verbal Energy

OMG! OED makes headlines with new words

The great dictionary has drawn wide attention for including common online abbreviations in its latest update, but that's only part of the story.

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Who knew that the update of a dictionary would make headlines around the world?

But as we say in the news business, it all depends on the competition on any given day. As I write, the news focus is ping-ponging between the nuclear accident in Japan and the West's latest military adventure in the Islamic world. So maybe the report that ♥, as in, "I ♥ NY," has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, along with LOL, OMG! and other mainstays of contemporary instant discourse, qualifies as a lighthearted change-of-pace story – except for those for whom it qualifies as a sign of a different kind of meltdown.

"The end is nigh for civilization as we know it!" has been the chorus from some quarters. Nonsense, say those in the other camp: Oxford is doing what dictionaries are supposed to do – add new words to reflect what's happening in the language.

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Under the "Nothing New Under the Sun" principle, it's worth noting that some of these "new" terms aren't so new after all. The indomitable Oxford editors have traced "OMG," for instance, back to 1917, when it appeared in a letter. And for those of delicate sensibilities, by the way, an Oxford editor notes that OMG! can be construed as short for "Oh, my goodness!"

Another one of the 45,436 new definitions included in the latest quarterly update of the OED online is muffin top, defined as "a roll of flesh which hangs visibly over a person's tight-fitting waistband." It's an all too apt term but it might not persist in common parlance as long as the phenomenon it describes.

The ♥, often pronounced "heart" but used to mean "love," is being described as the first "graphical entry" to the dictionary in its 127-year history.

For those who know the OED, one of the important story lines in the update saga seems to be over the place of set. This important little verb has been well known as the longest entry. At some 60,000 words, it's about the length of a slenderish novel.

But in 2007, the OED announced, "For many years the verb to set has been cited as the longest entry in the OED. But a recheck shows that it has at last been toppled from this position." The victor then was the verb make, which appeared in revised form in 2000.

"However," the editors continued, "it is quite possible that set will regain its long-held position at the top of the league of long words when it comes itself to be revised."

More recently, though, run has proved to be a real contender. The March update of the OED included revisions of run and all the R words.

John Simpson, the chief editor of the OED, cites run as "another example of a very short word which plays a significant role in the language.... The verb alone contains 645 senses (including phrases and other idiomatic uses...) and is now the largest single entry in the dictionary...."

It's too perfect, isn't it? While set has been resting on its laurels, run has been out hustling and adapting itself into new meanings.

Simpson continues, "My feeling is that set hasn't developed as much as run in the 20th and 21st centuries and so, when revised, it will be touch-and-go whether it hauls itself back into the largest-entry position it held in the first and second editions of the dictionary."

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