New words, grammar words, and World Englishes: another update for the Macmillan Dictionary

Posted by on March 16, 2016

© GettyAnother of our regular updates has just gone live, and it’s our biggest yet. As always, there have been additions and improvements right across the dictionary, with well over 600 changes this time. These include almost 400 completely new words and meanings, so let’s start by looking at those.

Among the several hundred neologisms which have just entered the dictionary, many are random coinages, but a good number come from those areas of our social and economic lives which have produced so many new words and meanings in recent years. The rise of zero-hours contracts (which we added to the dictionary a couple of years ago) reflected a trend away from the “job for life” model towards more insecure forms of employment, symptoms of which include the concierge economy and the rise of a “new” class, the precariat. At the same time, as enterprising people find new ways of doing business, different forms of entrepreneur have started appearing: our corpus shows evidence for words like ecopreneur, technopreneur, mompreneur, and solopreneur – so, since none of these is frequent enough to get into the dictionary (yet), the logical solution was to treat preneur as a “productive” suffix. At the other end of the business “food chain”, we now have a new way of talking about top executives whose job title starts with “chief” and usually ends with “officer” (Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, and so on): these are now all members of the C-suite.

It seems unlikely that C-suite types are devotees of freeganism (a freegan is someone who collects food that restaurants or supermarkets throw away). But food is another of those areas where new terms are always emerging. To some extent, the dictionary is just catching up with eating trends by adding more words for ingredients or dishes which – though not new – have become more familiar in western diets. So we now include words such as samphire, Kaffir lime, tabbouleh, and star anise. As TV cookery shows feature ever more complex creations, the well-established word foodie is now supplemented with the newer adjective cheffy to describe this phenomenon. Meanwhile, people’s allergies to certain foods has spawned a growth in free-from products: as one corpus line puts it “even the most seasoned carnivore would go wild for this free-from menu, boasting vegan, gluten-free and nut-free options”.

The language of social media continues to generate plenty of novel coinages. We’re not only seeing new terms like downvote, but also continuing additions to the stock of abbreviations used on Twitter, in emails, and other digital spaces: the latest crop includes IIRC, GTG, and TBH – not to mention ATM, which isn’t just a machine you can get cash from but also a quick way of saying “at the moment”.

Another aspect of language change is when long-established words acquire new meanings or uses. Everyone knows what an actor is, but in certain types of discourse (such as politics and journalism), we’re increasingly seeing the word used in a non-theatrical sense: a typical example from our corpus refers to “research including interviews with various actors involved in the migration management process”. The current update also features several instances of “nouning” and “verbing”: thus, lend and build have new noun uses, while inbox and decision are now being used as verbs. And so, to my surprise, is catfish, which means “to trick someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity”. Suffixation, too, is a common mechanism for creating new meanings. We’ve already mentioned –preneur, and other new suffixes include tastic (funtastic, poptastic, and so on) and appropriate: the word age-appropriate has been around for a while, but we’re now seeing other adjectives ending in appropriate.

As we’ve said before, keeping a dictionary up to date involves more than just adding new words and meanings. In recent years, we have revised our definitions of words such as marriage and meeting to reflect social or technological changes, and for this update, we’ve made numerous similar changes. Our old definitions for fax and cassette, for example, described these objects perfectly well, but did not make clear that these are ageing technologies which are no longer widely used. We’ve fixed that, and we have also provided fuller and (we hope) more accurate definitions of autism and Asperger’s syndrome, reflecting our improved understanding of these conditions. Changes like these are less headline-grabbing than shiny new words, but this is still an important part of the work of maintaining a good dictionary.

The “metalanguage” of English – the words we use to talk about grammatical and linguistic concepts – is a category we take seriously at Macmillan, not least because so many of our users are language learners or language teachers. Grammarian Gill Francis gave this whole set of words a major overhaul last year, adding dozens of new items and revising many existing ones. But as she said at the time, “The process of updating the linguistics entries is ongoing, and there are several more revisions and additions lining up impatiently for inclusion”. So in the present release, a further 60 entries have been completely revised, sometimes just to make them clearer and more helpful, sometimes to take account of new thinking in linguistics. For anyone with a professional or academic interest in language, the Macmillan Dictionary provides the broadest and most reliable coverage of linguistic terms.

Finally, we continue to expand our treatment of major world Englishes (beyond the British and American varieties), and this update features a few dozen additions from the vocabulary of Australian and Indian English. Words like gherao, bhadralok, freeship, and sherwani will be unfamiliar in some parts of the English-speaking world, but in south Asia they’re part of the everyday language. Seeing a sentence like “This handset can be availed through contract deals and sim-free deals”, many of us would not recognise this use of avail – but it would be familiar and unremarkable to any speaker of Indian English.

But the aspect of World English which we are focussing on this time is the English of southern Africa, and we’re very fortunate to have been working in recent months with Jill Wolvaardt and her team at the Dictionary Unit for South African English (DSAE). The DSAE has helped us to almost double our coverage of this important variety of English, and they have also made significant improvements to the 120 SAfE words we already had in the dictionary. That’s lekker!

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