The evolution of the English language was put on display this week, as Merriam-Webster Unabridged added more than 2,000 new words, including "nomophobia," "athleisure," and "ICYMI," to its lexicon.
"Nomophobia" is the fear of being without a cell phone, a "phobia" that, according to a 2012 poll, was experienced by two thirds of Americans. "Athleisure" refers to clothing "designed for both exercising and casual use."
ICYMI is an acronym, used frequently on social media, that stands for “in case you missed it.”
Merriam-Webster lexicographer Emily Brewster explains that the new additions “offer a kind of snapshot of how exactly our language expands.”
Ms. Brewster notes that the adaptation of phrases and terms occurs over time, writing that she and her colleagues "monitored many of these words for years."
For instance, “fit and flare,” a dress or skirt style that is tight around the waist and flares out below the hips first appeared in print in 1954. Along with the historical usage the phrases, the way it is used by different fields are also assessed before entering the dictionary.
Brewster writes that language expands in parallel to increasingly interdisciplinary modes of thought. The word “microloan,” a fund for financing an entrepreneurial pursuit by impoverished groups of people, usually in less developed countries, spread like wildfire after Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel peace prize for opening a bank in Bangladesh that lent out small amounts of cash to sustain women-run small businesses.
As with "athleisure," many of the words added by Merriam-Webster were portmanteaus. "Collapsar," a term for a star undergoing a gravitational crunch, combines "collapse" and "star," on the model of "pulsar" and "quasar." The more whimsical, "nomophobia" combined a shorthand for “no mobile” to the suffix, “-phobia.”
Other additions are shortened words. The term “dox”, defined as the public identification of private information as a form of revenge or harassment, is short for "documents."
Not all of the new additions, however, are quite so intuitive. On the April 21 fourth hour of the TODAY Show, Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford played a game in which they had to guess what the new words meant. Kathie Lee guessed that “nomophobia” meant no more fear because she construed “no more” from “nomo.”
They seemed to have the most trouble identifying scientific terms. “Waggle Dance,” for example, the pattern of movement created by a bee in identifying a distant source of food.
Subject matter of the words aside, according to Brewster, we are “in an era of character counts and coded communication shortcuts.” This is evident in the acronyms, ICYMI, which stands for “in case you missed it ” and FOMO, “the fear of missing out.” Both acronyms, commonly used in email exchange and on social media platforms, reflect anxiety of being out of the loop.
In a 2015 CNN report about the necessity of parents knowing digital shorthand in order to keep their children safe, Katie L. Greer, a tech-education consultant for schools, law enforcement agencies, and community organizations, stated that acronyms were purposefully created not only for immediacy but also to serve as an undecipherable code. She went so far as to compare some acronyms to "The Da Vinci Code," “where only the kids hold the true meanings (and most of the time they're fairly innocuous).”
That said, if Merriam-Webster’s press release was “dispogenic” – that is, thirst inducing – to your love of language, you'll find it slaked by the 1,992 other new additions and more than 700 new senses of existing terms to read up on in the 2016 unabridged dictionary (or, ICMYI, on Merriam-Webster's Twitter feed).