Twictionaries are adorkable but there’s a bigger story here

Guess which way their vote is going. Janitors, CC BY

Collins, publisher of one of the world’s most well-known dictionaries, is running a competition to encourage members of the public to vote on the new words that should be included in its next edition.

But the hype around the selection of the words is masking something more special – the new resource on offer to us as amateur and professional word-lovers.

Candidates suggested by the Collins editors for the competition include adorkable, felfie, fatberg, nomakeupselfie, duckface, gaybourhood, Euromaiden, vaguebooking and fractivist.

You’ve got one more day to vote, but early indications suggest that Cancer Research UK is in favour of nomakeupselfie, following the campaign that raised millions for its work, and farmers support felfie – the latest version of the selfie which involves standing in front of a cow, tractor or other farmyard favourite. Thames Water is putting its weight behind fatberg, after a lump of fat the size of a bus was discovered in a London sewer last summer.

New English, old method

The intended outcome of this viral marketing campaign is clearly a Twitter buzz and the associated newspaper coverage rather than a meaningful sampling of public opinion on new words.

It’s not the first time that Collins has taken this approach. In 2012, the publisher invited members of the public to nominate 12 words of the year. Broga, legbomb, Eurogeddon, mummy porn, Zuckered, jubilympics, Romneyshambles, Games Makers, 47 per cent, Superstorm, Gangnam style and fiscal cliff were duly identified.

Excitement mounted in 2013, when the element of competition was introduced. Geek eventually emerged as the winner from a field of words that included twerking, bitcoin, phablet, plebgate, fracker, cybernat, thigh gap, olinguito, black Friday, payday lending and Harlem shake.

That’s geek, first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1876 with the sense “a fool”, from 1957 in the sense “an unsociable obsessive person”, and from 1984 “a computer-obsessive”. This, in itself, illustrates how little value there is in crowdsourcing as a means of collecting lexical data. However, crowdsourcing has turned out to be a much more effective way to generate publicity than Collins’ previous efforts.

In 2011, the big story was the compilation of a list of words that had fallen from use, including aerodrome and charabanc, though some of the new words under consideration, such as Arab Spring and alarm clock Britain, also won a few column inches.

There’s no harm to any of this, of course. Collins gets people interested in its work, newspapers and bloggers lap it up and people who care are mildly distracted for a moment. We fulminate against the deterioration of the language or celebrate the moment “the dictionary” finally catches up with the latest linguistic innovations.

But it’s actually not a new trend. In 1859, work began on what we now call the Oxford English Dictionary with an appeal to members of the public to send in examples of words in use. This would not have been successful without some recent advances in communication and transport: postage stamps, the railway and steam ships.

The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its technology in the intervening years, and readers can now submit information to OED Appeals via its website. The OED New Words list regularly causes newspapers, bloggers and tweeters to seethe with outrage or chortle at the incongruity of the most “establishment” of all dictionaries including bestie, e-ticket, honey trap, Old Etonian (all added in March 2014), or whichever one of the dozens of new words can most readily produce a witty remark or headline. Another new word list is due out in June, so there is still time to place bets on the next controversy.

Beyond chatter

What’s interesting about the newspaper coverage of Collins’ campaign is that the story isn’t so much about the words, but about the dictionary’s use of Twitter as a source of data. There even appear to be more tweets encouraging people to vote than there are actual votes.

This is a story about words, with all the usual themes, but it’s also a story about how those words are created and become mainstream.

I like to see stories about words and dictionaries – it’s reassuring to see that my own academic interests are not entirely irrelevant to normal people. But it’s a shame, really, that dictionaries and newspapers are trivialising language change by pressing all the usual buttons.

Twitter is an excellent source of information about the history of words. Hundreds of felfies have been posted on Twitter since August 2012, for example, but the word originally had a more varied meaning than the Collins campaign suggests. There were friend selfies, family selfies, fun selfies, foot selfies, fake selfies and Friday selfies. But the farmer selfie emerged as the most common by late 2013. This was in no small part due to the concerted efforts of numerous agricultural organisations, keen to generate a bit of attention for farming.

Although there are only two definitions for felfie on Urban Dictionary, they confirm this pattern: the fake selfie sense was defined in April 2013 and the farmer selfie sense in February 2014. Google Blog Search doesn’t produce many examples before January 2014, but the earliest ones appear to indicate that the craze for posting felfies began in Europe, specifically in Germany.

This is an incredible level of depth for a dictionary researcher to be able to access: the original editors of the OED would have been glad to have two or three citations to choose from.

So by all means vote in this dictionary Pop Idol but why not then take some time to do a little digging of your own? You can track back on Twitter to see how rapidly these words changed and gained traction and even see the forces that shaped that change. It’s a far more valuable use of your time than vaguebooking.

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