248 changes in Macmillan Dictionary’s new update

Posted by on April 02, 2014

© Bananastock After a hard day at work — so busy you had to have your lunch al desko — you’re home at last. Time to change into something comfortable (so, maybe not the spray-on jeans today) and settle down to chainwatch your latest box set — perhaps one of those scary Nordic noir thrillers.

Well, you get the idea. The Macmillan Dictionary has just had another of its regular updates, and as usual, many of the new entries (like the words in the previous paragraph) reflect changes in our lifestyles. Others show how our engagement with the Web, social media, and the globalized economy continues to drive language change.

The most obvious reason that new expressions arise is to give a name to something which didn’t exist before — like twerking, selfies, click farms, or zero-hours contracts. Or perhaps it was something that was there all along but we didn’t know about it, like the newly-discovered (and newly-named) olinguito.

But just as interesting as the “why” of language change is the “how”. And in the current update, we can see the full range of mechanisms by which new words, meanings, and phrases are formed. There are blends (like clicktivism), abbreviations (BAU, ICYMI, STEM), back formations (surveille), and those short forms so popular in conversation or tweets (soz, rents, totes, or bestie). Other words might be well-established in one part of the English-speaking world but unfamiliar elsewhere: airdash, opticals and batchmate aren’t “new” to speakers of Indian English, but now we can all look them up.

One of the most powerful features of the language system is the way a word’s meaning can be  extended by means of metaphor. Most of the language we use in order to talk about computing, for example (virus, memory, cut-and-paste, window, and dozens more), is generated this way. In our current update, we can observe how expressions like arms race, ghetto, ecosystem, and civilian have all acquired new meanings through the power of metaphor. Meanwhile, our old friends “nouning” and “verbing” — creating new meanings by changing a word’s part of speech — are still at work, with favourite and friend now functioning as verbs, and fail as a noun.

Not all of the 248 changes involve adding new words and meanings. We sometimes need to tweak the definitions of very familiar words to take account of changes in the “real world”. When you see a sentence like “You can download the whole book from Project Gutenberg”, it’s obvious that the traditional definition of book (physical pages between covers) isn’t adequate. And, following our changes last year to the definition of marriage, this time we’ve broadened the scope of husband and wife.

Another aspect of language change is the way some words fall out of favour while others become more frequent — a subject we’ve touched on before. As a core vocabulary, Macmillan’s list of “red words” is mostly very stable. But changes do happen at the edges, and this time aeroplane, cassette and personal stereo have dropped out of the list, while climate change, text (verb) and genetics have been promoted to become red words.

A couple of final points to bear in mind. First, many of the neologisms we add are covered in greater depth in Kerry Maxwell’s BuzzWord column — this week Kerry is talking about gamification. And secondly, over half the new words in the current update had already been logged in our crowdsourced Open Dictionary. So congratulations and thank you to everyone whose submissions have now joined the main Macmillan Dictionary. Keep those suggestions coming!

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