Language can be a contentious topic.  

Word.

In February last year, there was outcry in France over changes made to the spelling of 2,400 words in the French language. These changes, which were in fact approved by the country’s official language guardians l’Academie Française way back in 1990, had largely gone unnoticed until the Ministry of Education reminded schools of them in a bid to simplify the spelling of certain words. Mostly it involved removing hyphens, changing or removing accents and altering spelling to align more closely with pronunciation. The changes sparked heated debate, earning a parody hashtag of ‘#JeSuisCirconflexe’ to mark the people’s outrage at the ditching of an (apparently beloved) accent.

For anyone who speaks French, this might not come as a surprise. As a bilingual Brit born and raised in French-speaking Brussels, I’ve experienced firsthand the anger that arises from unforgivable Belgian butchering of the French language. The dreaded question of ‘what is your date of birth’ would force me to carefully consider the right numbering system to use (France’s ‘quatre-vingt-onze’: ‘four-twenty-eleven’ and never, ever Belgium’s ‘nonante’: ninety). It was enough to make you wish you’d been born in a simpler decade, by numerical standards.  

But the gatekeepers of the English language appear, at least on the surface, more open to changes to its language. In fact, more recently the gates have been flung open to include public nomination of words to enter the English language via the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year – sort of a dictionary equivalent of the Green Card lottery system in America. The dictionary will consider words or phrases which have ‘become prominent in world news, politics, business and society’. This year, the dictionary’s word of the year was ‘Fake News’. Last year’s word of the year was ‘Brexit’. Recent winners have been decidedly political.   

The words in your mouth.jpg

In the early noughties Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang words and expressions, gained popularity among younger audiences online. It’s now used by millions of people all over the world to decode acronyms, slang words and lots (and lots) of innuendos. Its founder, Aaron Peckham, created it in defiance of dictionaries he claimed ‘took themselves too seriously’ and it signalled somewhat of a democratisation of language: a dictionary for words that were underrepresented in traditional lexicons.

I’m in favour of language evolving – words enter and leave vocabularies for all sorts of reasons and it’s a way of representing progress (good and bad) that we make. So I was curious to look back on the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year candidates for years gone by, hoping to be reminded of some of the great achievements in the last five years. Safe to say, I was a bit underwhelmed with what I found. Most of the words I came across sparked only a faint recollection – ‘Legbomb’ and ‘Zuckered’ both made it into the top words of 2012 – leading me to question the longevity of some additions. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; part of me doesn’t want to have to explain to a future generation what the meaning and origin of ‘thigh gap’ is (a candidate in 2013). Sometimes, it’s a good thing when words or sayings lose their meaning.

Collins Dictionary (among others) is trying to capture the zeitgeist of each passing year, and they do this in a light-hearted way (watch their spoof video below: behind the scenes footage as staff choose their word for 2016, or the announcement they made for ‘Fake News’ this year). It’s entertaining to follow, and shows that dictionaries can have a fun side. But perhaps not all fashionable words or topical sayings need their own entry in a dictionary, perhaps it’s not a loss if we leave some of them behind. 

*mic drop*