Dictionaries add words all the time. But really, it’s not the dictionaries adding words to the language. It’s us.
Dictionaries just record the words we’ve anointed by using them enough to indicate we really have made them part of the language.
That’s an art, of course, not a science.
Most dictionaries drop words, too, banishing from their pages terms we’ve banished from our speech and writing.
But there’s an exception: the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED — a historical record of the language where words check in, but they don’t check out.
“As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from dictionaries of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings,” the editors explain on the dictionary’s website.
“You’ll still find present-day meanings in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language — traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books,” the editors added.
For this reason, the OED has a singular place in the language — an authority held above all others.
So when this dictionary adds words, it’s worth taking notice. The new words can be a window into our minds and our culture.
Take, for example, one of the OED’s 2019 additions: “cannabusiness.”
We should have seen this one coming. Cannabis is gaining legal acceptance in a number of places in the country. Businesses are swooping in to profit off the new opportunities.
In hindsight, this word seems to have been inevitable. Its definition: “The branch of commercial activity concerned with the production and sale of cannabis or cannabis-related products. Also as a count noun: a company engaged in such activity.”
By the way, a count noun is one that describes a countable thing, like “song.” It’s contrasted with the idea of a mass noun, which describes something uncountable and that, therefore, has no plural form, like “music.”
Here’s a new word that, unlike “cannabusiness,” most of us could not see coming: cannabutter: “Butter infused with cannabis, used as an ingredient in cannabis edibles such as cookies and brownies.”
Since Madison Avenue isn’t on this yet, I’d like to be the first to pitch the new product name “I can’t believe it’s not … whoa, dude, my hands are huge.”
The English language’s reefer madness doesn’t end there.
“Cannabis café,” “cannabis dispensary” and “cannabis edible” also entered the language, along with “grasshopper,” a new slang sense of the noun meaning “a person who smokes marijuana, esp. habitually; a marijuana user or addict.” Get it? Grass?
On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, here’s a new addition to the language that’s no laughing matter: anti-suffragism.: “Opposition to the extension of the right to vote in political elections to women; the political movement dedicated to this.”
Please note the year this term was added: 2019.
Some of the most interesting additions aren’t new words but are new forms and senses of existing words.
Take “chipmunk,” for example. You know it as the adorable animal. But now, the furry creatures have inspired a new adjective sense: chipmunky: “Resembling or characteristic of a chipmunk, typically with reference to a person having prominent cheeks or a perky, mischievous character.”
“Edit” is a word we know well. But scientific advancements are taking it to fascinating new places, like your DNA: “edit: Molecular biology. transitive. To alter (a gene or other nucleotide sequence) by the insertion, deletion, or replacement of one or more nucleotides.”
In other words: gene editing.
Some of the new entries are head-scratchers, such as archicembalo, a noun meaning “any of various types of harpsichord having more than 12 keys to the octave and therefore capable of producing intervals smaller than a semitone.”
I wasn’t aware harpsichords were having newfound influence on the language. But then, I wasn’t aware chipmunks were so influential either.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.