« First amendments first | Main | Get out the tinfoil hats »

You'd need a dictionary for that

One Steve Huff complains at The New York Observer about some contemporary words that have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary:

The Internet has been infecting the Oxford Dictionary of English with already-dated web-based slang for years now. The newest list of words Oxford's lexicographers have deemed worthy of enshrining in their storied dictionary's pages reflects the emergence of social media and hacker terminology ... as well as abiding influence of slackerdom.

There are so many things wrong with these two sentences that one has to wonder whether Mr. Huff has ever looked into the OED's storied pages or, for that matter, troubled to educate himself on what dictionaries are for. Let’s take them in order.

1. The OED is a huge word hoard. It attempts to be comprehensive about the words that lodge themselves in English.

2. It is a dictionary on historical principles, showing the origin and development of words. It contains many that thrived for a time but are now obsolete, so “already-dated web-based slang” doesn’t disqualify anything.

3. It is not a shrine. It is a record of the language, high and low.

4. What appears to be lurking underneath this passage is the belief that the dictionary legitimizes words—remember all the English teachers who had the vapors when Webster’s Third International included ain’t?—and therefore in this case endorses slackerdom. Stated explicitly, it looks as fatuous as it is.

5. Someday someone is going to come across chillax, buzzkill, or bromance in a text and wonder what they mean and how they were used. That, Mr. Huff, is what dictionaries are for.



I carelessly overlooked that Mr. Huff was writing about The Oxford Dictionary of English, which emphasizes contemporary usages, not the OED. That said, there’s all the more reason for such a dictionary to include current and recent slang, and there is a fair likelihood that much or all of it will eventually pass through the sacred portals.

I am grateful for the comments pointing out my error. 




Posted by John McIntyre at 9:19 AM | | Comments (5)


I agree with your points, in the main, but the ODE is a different dictionary to the OED. This appears to be a common misunderstanding.

Stan, that's true, but it's worth noting that since the ODE's goal is to reflect modern language usage, Mr. Huff's huff is even sillier. On the other hand, he's probably also confused, since the ODE isn't (as far as I know) particularly storied.

What an awkward mouthful this is: "Oxford's lexicographers have deemed worthy of enshrining in their storied dictionary's pages." Why must poor writers pile on the fancy talk ("deemed worthy of enshrining") when addressing issues of culture?

Erin McKean, lexicographer (

"Lots of people (and by "lots" I mean roughly 99% of everyone I've ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who's Who of words. That it's like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow "realler" than the words that don't."

LOL - So worth reading this blog to hear you say "chillax." Thanks so much for being informative AND entertaining!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected