Every year, Merriam-Webster releases a list of words added to the new version of its Collegiate Dictionary. The editors decide which words make the cut based on one rule: usage. They figure out which words people are using most often and in what context.
And every year, you’ll find articles about how the words we’re using signal that the English language is dead. But is it really? Sure, the 2012 list certainly says something about our culture, with additions including F-Bomb, sexting, mash-up, earworm, bucket list, brain cramp, gastropub, aha moment, life coach and man cave.
But how bad is that compared to the list of words that made it into dictionaries back in 1929 and 1930, when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Edith Wharton were the writers of the day? That list includes effing, whoop de-do, snack bar, whodunit and moxie, another word for a sense of audacity and spunk. Spunk, by the way, made its first appearance in 1582.
I also found a list of phrases and slang added to the vernacular between the 1920s and 1940s. They include all wet (an erroneous idea or individual), Big Cheese, broad (as in dame, not wide), bump off (murder), Heebie Jebbies, ossified (a drunk person), scram, and my favorite, soitently (sure!)
The 2012 additions suddenly don’t seem that wacky (first known use of wacky: circa 1935).
Earworm and aha moment aren’t actually new to Merriam-Webster. Earworm has been used since at least 1802 to describe a bug that destroys corn. But we got a new definition when author Stephen King wrote a column in 2009 for Entertainment Weekly called The Trouble With Earworms.
“A couple of months ago, I woke up at three in the morning, thirsty as hell (probably because I’d donated blood the day before), and shambled into the bathroom for a glass of water. I was 20 percent awake at best. And as I turned on the faucet, I realized I was signing this: “They say a man should always dress/For the job he wants/So why’m I dressed up like a pirate/In this restaurant?
Dear God, I thought, I’ve been infected by an earworm.
My friend the Longhair says that’s what you call songs that burrow into your head and commence chewing your brains. The dreaded earworm can turn even a great song into something you’d run from, screaming at the top of your lungs.
(I don’t know about you, but my earworm would be Oklahoma! from the musical of the same name. Apologies if I’ve just infected you.)
As for aha moment, it was first used in 1939 psychology textbook to describe a sudden realization. But it owes its current popularity to Oprah. "I always love those moments when I sit down to talk to somebody and they say something that makes me look at life or a situation in a completely different way. And I say, 'Aha! I get it!' Light bulb -- bing, bing, bing, bing moment and the little hairs on your arm stand up. That is an aha moment," Oprah explains in a video describing what the term means to her.
When it comes to F-Bomb, it’s actually been in popular use since 1988. The Merriam-Webster editors traced it to a Newsday story that had the now-dead Mets catcher Gary Carter using it after being showered by profanities by an umpire. It began to pick up steam in recent years after Dick Cheney dropped an F-Bomb in the Senate in 2004, followed by Vice President Joe Biden in 2004, also in the Senate.
The Merriam-Webster Company first published the Collegiate Dictionary in 1898. The editors update the print edition every decade or so and add new words every year. It now contains 225,000 definitions and you can look them up online at their site. You'll also find a list of the 10 words most frequently searched in the past 24 hours. Here's what it shows:
7. bona fide
8. prestidigitation (I had to look this up. It means ‘sleight of hand,’ as in what a magician does.)
I was effing impressed. There seems to be quite an erudite crowd perusing Merriam-Webster, judging by that list. And that's why I’m not ready to pronounce the English language dead, at least not yet. -- CG
Word cloud created at Wordle.