An OED Update Reveals the Surprising Place Where Hundreds of New Words Originated

The June quarterly update of the Oxford English Dictionary, out this week, brings with it more than 500 new words. As with other lexicographical updates we’ve seen in 2015, the OED list includes new entries tethered to a rapidly evolving language of gender and identity (cisgender, intersectionality), as well as depressing, obligatory additions stemming from life under the technocratic regime of late capitalism (infopreneur). And, of course, there is no shortage of embarrassing gibberish (totes).

Lexicographers usually follow these lists with convivial notes that describe the magnitude of their project. They should: imagine a team of geneticists mapping a genome that is constantly in flux. Appropriately, then, in the note from this quarter, Head of US Dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin points out that this list, released 14 years after the founding of the online OED, features “dozens of items which are not recorded before the 21st century, but which are now widely used in English.”

The Internet, with its various subcommunities and formats, is responsible for many of these new words. But it’s not responsible (by any stretch) for all of them. The new update, for example, comes with a surprising number of fascinating borrowings and hybrids from Philippine English. Take the word “batchmate,” which, as far as I can tell, is a synonym for classmate. Or “carnap” — “to steal a car” — which was actually first found in US magazines but was salvaged by Filipinos after falling into American disuse. Even the word “salvage” has a different meaning in Philippine English: “to summarily execute a suspected criminal.”

If it isn’t clear from the case of Philippine English, the task of the OED editors isn’t limited to adding new words. New information about the etymologies of entries (both new and familiar) often results from research or readerly input. Often, too, it’s the quotations (over and above the source of the word itself) that resonate with readers and “users” of the OED.

With this in mind, and turning back to the Internet, it’s perhaps surprising to note that, of all online sources, Usenet has been the most generative of OED citations. According to Assistant Editor Jonathan Dent, “[the] OED currently makes use of nearly 2,500 quotations from Usenet, with quotations from its newsgroups providing the first available evidence for use in more than 400 senses or entries.” In fact, the more you look at the specific words that are sourced from (or contextualized by) Usenet, the more obvious it becomes that much of our online and offline culture is derived from the factional world of 1990s newsgroups:

Usenet provides early evidence for many computing and Internet-related terms (defrag, the verb to email, http, mp3, p2p, XML) and vocabulary from the shadowy world of hacking (black-hat and white hat, darknet, hacktivism)…‘geek culture’ (cosplay, LARP, retcon, alpha geek, anime, and the newly added ship), identity politics (LGBT, cisgender), and sexual subcultures (BDSM).

In his note on the quarterly update, Dent suggests that what elevates Usenet over and above other potential online sources is its emphasis on shared communities — as opposed to, say, diffuse, rage-based networks — which more easily generate context (and therefore meaning). So when it comes to producing meaningful language, Twitter, even with its 500 million tweets a day, is still catching up to a technology that found its identity in the 1980s and 1990s.

What’s interesting to me about the OED notes is how they chime with an upbuilding argument about language, technology, and culture, one that is finding new expression in 2015. New words can be found almost anywhere, yes, but the takeaway from the OED notes is that memorable, meaningful language is more likely to be discovered alongside a strong communitarian impulse, whether it forms online or offline, on Usenet or in the Philippines. Similarly, I would argue, Joshua Cohen’s new novel, The Book of Numbers, works to restore language (and the Internet) to its human sociability; likewise, rant-novels like Elisa Albert’s After Birth and Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country set themselves — explicitly or not — against the comparatively unsophisticated, reactionary impulses of social media. It’s almost as if, subjected to the omnipresence of social technologies, our best writers have chosen to linguistify and socialize the culture they produce.