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I’d like a word, please...

Betty Firth
Posted 1/18/23

Sometimes I just need a good rant about how we sometimes massacre our perfectly good language. January’s full moon was the Wolf Moon, so what better time to howl about it? To balance the …

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I’d like a word, please...


Sometimes I just need a good rant about how we sometimes massacre our perfectly good language. January’s full moon was the Wolf Moon, so what better time to howl about it? To balance the scales, I’ll first honor those finely-tuned linguistic folks, the dictionary makers and linguistic society members, who choose a Word of the Year (WOTY–yes, it really does have an official acronym.)
The criteria for the chosen words and/or expressions differs between organizations, but they are all considered to be words that reflect the cultural events and trends of the previous year and may be newly-created words. Criteria often includes the number of times a word is looked up, and surges of lookups can be tagged to events in the world that triggered the interest. For example, “Queen Consort” lookups surged when Edward was crowned. It is the official title for the king’s wife, and since Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years, the term hasn’t been used since King George’s reign ended in 1952.
Other words that spiked in 2022: oligarch, omicron, endemic, LGBTQ1A, codify, sentient, metaverse, denier, and COVID. Newly-created words include blob (a giant, single-celled organism found in leaf litter); boomerang generation (young people returning to live with parents); cannamoms (mothers taking microdoses of cannabis to relax and help ease their mental load); cheugy (referring to people who follow cheesy or out-of-date trends and embrace them); cryptocurrency (virtual money such as Bitcoins, Ethereum and Ripple; there are more than 6,000 cryptocurrencies in the world.) Several words expressed aspects of living better by consuming less and enjoying life to the fullest: de-consumerism, frugalism, mys, and slow working. If these aren’t familiar, crank up your online dictionary and go for it: gender fluid, JOMO, FOMO, GOAT, metrification, neopronouns, woke, and zennials.
Professional linguistics make the determinations for WOTY in some organizations, while others have public voting on the final choices. I’m a self-professed word nerd, and I’m happy to know that there are many others out there that are as goofy about words as I am, and in fact, way more so.
There are multiple online dictionaries, each with its own focus, attributes, and strengths. The Oxford Dictionary is considered ideal when writing a thesis or research paper, while the Collins Dictionary with over 4.5 billion words is excellent for learners, translators, and teachers. The Google Dictionary supports several languages, has an audio pronunciation tool, and autosuggest tool if you know the first few letters. The Urban Dictionary features urban words and slang. Online dictionaries are relatively new, so, which was created 20 years ago, is considered “old and trusted” as a leading source of word definitions on the internet. Then there is Wiktionary, a collaborative multilingual dictionary, which also includes a thesaurus, a rhyme guide, phrase books, language statistics and extensive appendices. “It aims to describe all words of all languages using definitions and descriptions in English.” They’re not shy about large goals. Their aim is to include enough information for deeper understanding beyond just a definition, so etymologies, pronunciations, sample quotations, synonyms, antonyms and translations are included. You can become a contributor, but only if you follow strict guidelines.
Merriam-Webster, a well-known name in print dictionaries, has chosen “gaslighting” for the 2022 WOTY, reflective of our tumultuous political environment. Originally it meant “psychological manipulation of a person over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence, and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” The term has broadened to mean “the art or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for personal advantage.” Related words are “fake news” and “deep fake.”
Popularity of online word games such as Wordle (and imitators Quordle, Heardle, Squirdle, Swordle, etc.), WordPlay, Word Master, Words with Friends, and a multitude of crossword puzzles is a delightful indication that people haven’t given up on using complete words and enjoy being playful with them. Wordle was created by Reddit software developer, Josh Wardle, for his partner, who loved word games, and then offered it to the public in October 2021. Participation grew from 90 players in November to over two million in early January! The New York Times Co. bought Wordle for a low seven-figure sum. These games are said to benefit mental acuity, but be warned: they can be addictive. One friend told me she was playing Words with Friends with 20 different people. I got hooked on WordPlay, a Wordle clone, that lets you play as often as you wish, unlike Wordle which gives you one chance a day.
I found that dictionary and newspaper sites have lots of language-related games for kids and adults that can make learning fun and just give you a break from cleaning the oven.
I’ve been so immersed in word fun and trivia, that I’ve left myself little room to rant. So, I’ll rant briefly. It is really time for us to move on beyond “awesome” and other overused, overstated superlatives. Awe is defined as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder,” and awesome as “extremely impressive or daunting, inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” I see that Dictionary includes an informal usage, “extremely good, excellent” as in “The band is truly awesome!” This is what I feared. Once the dictionaries acknowledge a use there’s no going back. But I will still lobby for saving those superlatives for the special occasions they were meant for, like viewing the Grand Canyon, witnessing the birth of a human being or a litter of kittens, or getting into the college of your choice. A waiter responded “awesome” when I gave him my order. It really wasn’t. I didn’t jump on the table and sing my order. I didn’t say it in five languages. I just said it, not awesomely.
Another annoyance are all the abbreviations, used even when speaking, such as: obvs or obvi for obviously. It’s actually harder to say “obvs.” OMG, texting has not been a positive influence, IMHO. And “like.” Like we’ve got to like get rid of these like unnecessary words that like clutter up our language. I used to have hope that people would outgrow the “likes,” but then I heard an offender’s very young children overliking, and I realized it’s hopeless. I’ll have a better chance lobbying for world peace.