A Word is More Than Just a Word

This morning when I was driving down the highway through the orange construction barrels, I had to turn up the radio. The morning commentator was reading a story about the new words Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary added this year. Usually new words have something to do with the latest technologies, but I was flabbergasted when  F-bomb and sexting were included in the mix. Another big dictionary we turn to for information about words, Oxford University Press, passed on those two new words, but they did add mash-up and cloud computing. I don’t want to appear ignorant, but what does “mash-up” actually mean? Does  it have something to do with cooked potatoes. (I guess I’ll have to buy a new Oxford dictionary!)

The reason I bring this topic up is because it has to do with words. Adding new words to a dictionary is really quite a special event. The reason? It’s a big deal because it shows language is dynamic and HOW we use words is different as time goes on. That’s because there’s a dynamic connection between the culture we live in and words we use to communicate with one another in our social circles. (If you’ve raised a teenager, haven’t you thought at times they speak a foreign language?) If we didn’t put new words into our lives, our culture would be stagnant and dying because one can’t separate language and culture; they have a symbiotic relationship.

Is it likely that I’ll put F-bomb and Sexting into my vernacular? Probably not. But I am aware of what the words mean–with the exception of “mash-up,” of course.

So students if you are struggling as you read Shakespeare, the Romantic Poets like Shelley and Keats, or heaven forbid Beowulf, go easy on yourself. The difficulty you experience in such required reading is because language has changed so much since the texts were written  several hundred years ago–it’s not that your teachers are trying to  make your life a living hell.

After all, I’m old enough to remember when “gay” meant happy, but I’m young enough to know when something is “cool.”

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