The March 2019 update to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) adds words and phrases related to dogs, gender identities, cannabis, and many more. The official website of the OED says that 650 words in all were added for the first quarter of 2019. The lifespan of words sheds light on our ever-evolving language.
New cross-breeds of dogs were high on the list of words added to the OED this quarter. The pug-beagle mix “puggle” made it in, as did the Maltese-poodle “maltipoo.” If you’ve ever referred to someone by using a gender pronoun for which they didn’t care, you may have been accused of “misgendering” them, which also made the list for March 2019. In light of the expanding industry of legalized cannabis, the OED has added the portmanteau “cannabusiness” (a hybrid of “cannabis” and “business”), at which you may purchase “cannabis edibles,” “cannabutter,” or other products, all words now found in the dictionary. Finally, a large, hairy, smelly, manlike creature allegedly living in Florida can now be identified in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “skunk ape.” So how do new words come about and why do they die off?
Lifespan of an English Word
How are words born? “Some words have been in English as long as there’s been English—words like heart, head, man, sun, and the pronoun I,” Dr. Anne Curzan, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, said. “These were part of Germanic dialects from which English derives—and then we could trace them back into proto-Indo-European before it split off into Germanic.” Dr. Curzan explained that other words are borrowed from other languages, such as the word “secret” from French. We consider their “birth” in English to be the time at which they entered the English language, not the time they were first used in their native tongues. Finally, some words are invented in English. These are words “born” into English, often by attaching prefixes to suffixes, as is the case with multislacking and guesstimating. This is where we get some of the new words in the OED in 2019: Puggle, maltipoo, misgendering, and cannabusiness are all clear fusions of multiple words or word parts.
The death of a word is more complicated. Words don’t always die just because people stop using them. “Let’s consider a word like betimes, which meant ‘in a short time’ or ‘in good time,'” Dr. Curzan said. “There’s a baby crying and you [would] say, ‘She will tire betimes.’ I would never say this, but we do encounter this word in Shakespeare, Milton, and elsewhere.” Since nobody uses the word anymore, it could be considered dead, but its recurrence in classic literature keeps it in the public eye. Dr. Curzan explained that words like this are often labeled “archaic” in the dictionary to identify its limbo-like status.
Adding a Word to the Dictionary – What Makes a Word, a “Word”?
Most of us can imagine the general idea of what a word is. “It stands alone, it’s one thing, and it has meaning,” Dr. Curzan said. “If we used those tests, there are other things that we would think of as a word where it’s harder to do something like pinpoint the meaning.” Dr. Curzan pointed out the word “the” as an example of a word whose meaning is difficult to simply explain. Likewise, she mentioned the compound “ice cream” as failing the concept of being “one thing.” Since there’s a space in the middle, one could say that “ice cream” is simply two separate words. However, “ice” and “cream” each have their own meanings when looked at as individual words. The third meaning comes from combining them into one concept like “ice cream.” In reality, the definition of what makes a word be a word is quite fluid.
Next, how do words get their meanings? If someone says “person,” billions of images may enter our heads, but they’re all loosely the same concept. Most of us think of a human being with two arms and two legs, a body, and a head with standard facial features. This person, however specific, is a sort of model or prototype we can alter with further information. We can narrow our definition of “person” with modifiers like tall, short, old, young, blond, brunette, and so on. Dr. Curzan said that this is a mental process we’ve all done since before we could speak—attach meaning, images, and sounds to words and concepts. Amazingly enough, it often enables us to decipher the meanings of new words based on the ideas we connect to those word parts. If new words sometimes come from fusing two words or word parts together, we fuse our experiences with those words together as well. For example, with the 2019 new OED word “cannabusiness,” many of us can extrapolate the words “cannabis” and “business” from this new word and deduce that the new word defines a business dealing with cannabis products—and we already have our own understandings of each of those words.
As words are born and make their way into the common lexicon, they are often integrated into the dictionary. By examining where words come from and what they mean, we can demystify them and advance our own personal use of language.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.