Why Selfie Should Be In The Dictionary


I am in conflict. 

My principles tell me that language should be inclusive, an evolving entity that reflects the changing ways of the people who use it. Pidgin should have it’s own dictionary, and I wholeheartedly support the patois bible.

But then why do I inwardly cringe when I hear that selfie was the word of the year in 2015, and the laughing face emoji for 2016?

This debate raged over the breakfast table this morning, thoughts thrown out over coffee as we argued back and forth as to the sanctity of words. Two sides emerged, and as we talked I felt like I straddled the opposing opinions. 

I use colloquialisms daily, as do all of my friends. But as a writer I revel in the richness of the words available to me, their individual denotations pulled together in an exact combination to convey my thoughts, or to provide you with access to the world that I imagined in my head. Thus when words change their meaning, as they do when the dictionary embraces common misuses as new definitions, sometimes we lose nuance. Take the classic example of literally. I misuse literally whenever I want to exaggerate, most people do, but I understand the difference. So when the Google definition included the misuse I sighed a deep sigh of discontent, because no longer can we distinguish between literally and figuratively. Yet my adored best friend pointed out to me that the ‘proper’ way that I use literally is in fact itself a misuse. Historically ‘literally' didn’t mean ‘actually,' it meant to represent the exact words in a written text, apparently. As if this wasn’t enough to put me in my place, the Oxford English Dictionary supposedly has included the misuse since 1903 and there is evidence to suggest that as far back as the late 1700s writers were including it in the figurative sense. With all things considered, I don’t really feel I can call it a misuse anymore.

By the way, did you know Shakespeare misused words all the time. He literally (sorry) changed the definition of words and introduced many new ones that enhance today’s lexicon. The standard argument for the evolution of language is that without it we would be speaking Shakespearean English, but funnily enough we kind of do and language lovers of his day were horrified

Really this debate all comes down to alienation. As a university student I have honed my writing vocabulary to include words and phrases that will impress my professors and convince them that I deserve that longed for A. Of course the ideas in my papers matter, but I think we both know that I won’t be rewarded for my points if they are unintelligible. But those who decide what is intelligible often alienate others. Typically this is done from a socio-economic standpoint, so that common vernacular is not valued. I understand this to a certain extent. Typically the changing meanings of colloquialisms are so fast that we would alienate more by writing in them. The whole point of writing is to communicate, and to incorporate short-lived sayings would be to render the whole thing useless to all but a small few in a specific time. We do need an overarching formal language to allow ideas to be passed on comprehensibly, but all too often that language perpetuates inequality. 

And one thing I’ve come to realise is that, no matter how much we hate it, language will continue to change. Pidgin is a fascinating example of this, and it has come to be somewhat embraced in formality. For years in Ghana children were punished for using pidgin, as educators saw it as unprofessional and unintelligent. Yet the most recent President ran for office with a pidgin slogan and won. He saw what the people were using, and knew that it was the best way to access them politically. Now some companies incorporate it into their adverts, and I sit in meetings at my internship concentrating hard in efforts to understand the pidgin freely flowing in the room. It is a challenge, but to deny it as a language in its own right is unfair. It brings its own challenges: I had never spoken pidgin before and it stretches the limit of my comprehension, plus I sound ridiculous when I try to say “I did chop” because I have completely failed to grasp the accent. In a broader sense pidgin is also highly specific to place and time, Nigerian pidgin is not Ghanaian pidgin and according to the lovely (and patient) Ghanaians who were trying to teach me, it can even differ from school to school. A professor I spoke to, in his thirties, told me that the language that his sixteen year old siblings spoke is completely different from the one he interacted in just two decades ago. To put such rapidly changing phrases into the dictionary would render it outdated almost as soon as you began, but I don’t think that’s any reason not to validate it. 

So my principles win out. I would love more than anything for language to be accessible to all, and I think dictionaries have a responsibility to ensure that. Clearly the makers of said dictionaries agree, the words of the years are not stuffy ones used by older generations but invariably incorporate the sentiment of the youth. I do communicate in emojis - they represent emotion and thus pepper my messages. But I love language, and consider all attempts at writing a chance to flex the linguistic muscle that resides within me. I don’t want to lose that richness all because simplicity sits within our oral communication. 

Ultimately I think the dictionaries are doing a fantastic job of cracking this conundrum, because they include both the prescriptive (what words should mean) and the descriptive (how they are used). Take ‘literally,' for example. If you use that fantastic little dictionary residing on your laptop – which I have been doing frequently whilst crafting this post, because if I’m going to be opinionated about language then I have to get my definitions right – you’ll find a clear distinction between the original denotation and the usage for emphasis. So my Grandad, who I’m told was a stickler for words and consequently had to feature in this post somewhere, will be pleased to know that an entire paragraph is devoted to the difference between ‘infer' and ‘imply.' 

And if you want to know the importance of understanding the difference between colloquial and literary language, let’s turn to our old friend Harry Potter for illumination. In Book Five, when Ron “ejaculated loudly" at Professor Umbridge, can we all just be clear that he was talking?



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