Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Keeping it real or just making it up?

This article from last week's Guardian takes a good look at the rise of Urban Dictionary and its approach to gathering new words compared to that of more established dictionaries like the OED and Collins. This brief extract puts it nicely:

Now, you are unlikely ever to confuse the OED with Urban Dictionary – one is the definitive record of the English language, the other is a rambling free-for-all largely compiled by teenagers making stuff up – but the comparison remains. Until relatively recently a word wasn't recognised as such until it was recorded in a proper dictionary. Now neologisms are pouring into the language like never before; our vocabulary is being reshaped by texters, tweeters, bloggers, marketeers and have-a-go contributors. Slang used to take decades to cross the Atlantic; now it takes minutes.

The article offers some debate (good for ENGA3 Language Discourses) about the importance and authority of Urban Dictionary, with slang specialist and lexicographer Jonathon Green arguing that it's quite a fun resource, but not one which we should rely on for authenticity and accuracy, while the dictionary's founder, Aaron Peckham, argues that it's an evolving and multifaceted document of our times. There are other arguments too about the rights and wrongs of putting what might be ephemeral, vogue words into a dictionary of the OED's standing, with some arguing that muffin-top and OMG have no real place in such an authoritative tome.

The best line in the whole feature has to belong to Green though, who states: "My response to people saying slang destroys the language is: bollocks.You always see the same themes: drugs, drink, sex, parts of the body and what people do with them, being nasty to each other, racist stuff. It doesn't do compassion very well. But slang is lively, exciting and very creative". Amen to that.

Linguist, writer and creator of the excellent Visual Thesaurus site, Ben Zimmer, reviews Jonathon Green's Slang Dictionary here, with a really insightful look at how Green traces the shifting meanings of the word punk. Evidence, if any were really needed, that analysing slang tells us a huge amount about the language we've used on the past and the ways in which language is shaped by social change and in turn contributes to our own social attitudes.

So, whether you prefer the OED's slow but steady approach or the quick fix of instant gratification that Urban Dictionary gives you, slang definitely needs a closer look as it's tied up with who we are, where we are from and where we are going. And slang is ace. Word to your mother, bro.

Edited on 3.05.11 to add link to Guardian article (durrrrrr)

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