In March of this year, the Oxford English Dictionary added 650 new words. These ranged from the fantastical-mundane ‘energy vampire’; to the pop-cultural, in the hasty, practical descriptor of ‘MacGyvered’; to the usual glut of queasy portmanteaus, ranging from ‘dorgi’ (dachshund/corgi-hybrid) to ‘cannabusiness’ (cannabis business). Words are chosen based on their prolonged existence in the cultural consciousness. However, if the neologism is so contingent on its value in the public eye, it’s worth interrogating how this gaze is cast about.
Words are chosen based on their prolonged existence in the cultural consciousness
The governing principle here is the Western association. Words may be added to highlight some continued trend – take 2016’s addition of ‘Brexit’, or 2017’s ‘youthquake’. The assumption, perhaps, is that they can capture a hopefully lasting sort of cultural relevancy. But this relevancy is governed by a tacit, historicist elitism – only words that reside in an English/American cultural consciousness make the cut.
As with any language, the firm edges governed in the dictionary are inevitably frayed by multilingualism. India, the second-largest English-speaking country, has 125 million speakers. However, few new words derive from Indian English – in 2017, of the over 150,000 words in the dictionary, only 900 were Indian English. Added this year was ‘chuddies’, a term popularised only due to the 90s Britcom Goodness Gracious Me. The Oxford English Dictionary here remains assuredly English.
by what means do we define ‘English’?
This would all seem to ask the simple question: by what means do we define ‘English’? Western linguistic history and cultural consciousness is prioritised over larger populations, with histories just as long. Though there may be greater preponderances of English-speakers elsewhere, the West is still taken to carry the torch of intellect. Countries with a past saturated in British colonialism deserve more than lip service. Where are the ‘chaivinists’ (chai-lovers), ‘would-bes’ (fiancés), or ‘stadiums’ (balding men) rendered so colourfully in Hinglish (Hindi-English)?
This focus on a historical linguistic consciousness diminishes the rapid progress and popularity of language elsewhere. Hinglish has lasted at least as long as the colonial period, and yet is still underrepresented. Though steps have been made, it’s worth keeping India’s 125 million speakers in mind. That’s near-double the population of the United Kingdom – not to mention the 94 million speakers in Pakistan, or the 90 million in the Philippines.
the dictionary should do more to consider its postcolonial context
While we whittle away our time with the additions like ‘skunked’ and ‘Aperol spritz’, the dictionary should do more to consider its postcolonial context. The OED’s purpose is to document lasting and relevant permutations of the English language, not to become a hegemonic nothingburger.