Words have power. Sometimes that is the power to cause eye-rolling and tongue-clucking. The most recent batch of literary dazzles is the 150 new entries into the 11th edition Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary which at times reads more like a screen shot of a tech-savvy text message conversation than terms future generations will find in great literature.
But the lexicon is not necessarily formed solely for the high-brow and which is probably why newspaper vocabulary bars hang low, text speak has weakened the ability to send a quasi-professional email and the multi-syllabic national spelling bee words sound even mysterious and challenging. Then again, there’s a reason it’s called the common vernacular.
Dictionaries were once the go-to source for words we didn’t know. Now dictionaries are playing catch-up with popular culture. Heck, dictionaries are even struggling to keep up with each other. One edition will add “twerk” one year while another holds off. “Bromance” and “chillax” make the cut for the Oxford English Dictionary but maybe not yet Merriam. Then there are the words that start out with one meaning and turn into something completely different — “catfish,” anyone?
With that in mind, here’s a mini-primer defining some of these newly anointed words and using some in sentences.
Selfie: “I believe everybody in the world is infinitely interested in what I am wearing, where I am at and if I’m standing half-naked in a bikini hoping the phone camera flash doesn’t mess up my reflection in the bathroom mirror so I’m going to send out a selfie.” Alternately, one can explain “I am so full of my selfie.”
Fracking: “All of this newfangled oil and gas drilling is really fracking up the Earth.”
Catfish: “Salmon is so passé. Let’s try catfish. In fact, let’s drive to Mississippi to meet up with that hottie I connected with online who claims to be a neuroscientist with a soft spot for puppies and action movies. Boy, I really did like her selfie.”
Hashtag: You’ll be tempted to whip this out at the local diner during breakfast thinking it means the fried remnants left on the grill. “I’ll take the corned beef and hashtag. The crunchy bits are the best part.” But no. Instead it is a way for us to communicate in even smaller bit phrases and sound bites. #labels
Unfriend: “You made fun of my selfie. I am so going to unfriend you.” #deadtome
Big data: Little bits of information that ate its veggies, got its sleep and grew up. Either that or a hot night with an accent. “Hey, how about you and me go on a big data tonight?”
Poutine: “What is that you’re poutine in your mouth? Why it’s a tray of gravy-smothered french fries served with cheese curds.”
Pho: A dinner menu request, perhaps. “Pho?” “Sure!”
Freegan: The modern day version of a dumpster diver. “I thought a raccoon got into my trash last night but it was just the neighborhood freegan. Hope he liked those poutine scraps.”
Crowdfunding: “I no longer panhandle or bum spare change off the relatives. Instead, I crowdfund.” #FindingOpportunities
Others with a new spot in the dictionary include steampunk, fangirl and something called a yooper. Don’t worry if you don’t yet have the hang of these words because chances are not all will stand the test of time. Very likely they will be overused before falling to the wayside like 2003’s ever-popular “shock and awe.” But before they do, give one a whirl in conversation and let the newcomers enjoy their time in the linguistic limelight for a spell.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.