Astonishment, Excitement, Embarrassment, Etc.

On the genius of the OED, and other idiosyncrasies of everyday English.

April 29th, 2011

It is, I think you will agree, the rather rare headline that contains a total of eleven exclamation marks. Nonetheless, there it was, on the editorial page of the April 5 New York Times: "OMG!!! OED!!! LOL!!!!!"—a lighthearted, unsigned opinion celebrating the addition of a pair of Internet- and text-message-boosted Three-Letter Initialisms1 into the greatest TLI of them all: the Oxford English Dictionary.

There were a lot of similar headlines that week, conveying much the same news: that the OED had announced, as they do from time to time, a set of new and revised definitions—part of their lexicographers' never-ending task of making sure the flagship dictionary of the English language remains up to date. Hence, this month, the new inclusion of fnarr-fnarr, singledom, banh mi, smack-talking, stonewash, tinfoil hat, behavioral economics, wassup, biker, runathon, happy camper, Second Coming, rumble-de-thumps (along with dozens of other R-words), and as a headliner, OMG: "colloq. (freq. in the language of electronic communications) . . . Expressing astonishment, excitement, embarrassment, etc.: 'oh my God!'"

One wonders whether such additions are made and announced simply to provoke the greatest amount of notice and (largely false) controversy. Fair enough—who wants to read headlines like "OED Adds 11th Definition for Ruff"2?

And it's true that many people take umbrage when they let just any word into the dictionary, and can be counted on to cry that our once-proud English language is indeed going to, let us say, "a place regarded in various religions as a spiritual realm of evil and suffering" in "a small, portable container used to hold or carry things, typically made from interwoven strips of cane or wire." But the larger audience for these stories comprises folks who rather enjoy seeing parts of their everyday speech gaining recognition by some Voice of Authority.

Indeed, once one Voice has taken the risk, the others just pile on. Hence the Times editorial, which pushed back from its ironically punctuated headline to quote as large an Authority as G.K. Chesterton himself—a surprisingly frequent occurrence, according to the Times' own database—that we should heartily reject the linguistic neophobe's assumption that our language already possesses "a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell." That quote comes from Chesterton's short book on the Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts, whose symbolist works (with titles like "Hope" and "Physical Energy") defied the tiresome allegoric convention whereby each symbol should correspond to exactly one word or concept, a fallacy that asks that every work of art be as legible as a railway sign.

Every time one man says to another, "Tell us plainly what you mean?" he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that there is a perfect scheme of verbal expression for all the internal moods and meanings of men. Whenever a man says to another, "Prove your case; defend your faith," he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell. He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless and more nameless, than the colours of an autumn forest; he knows that there are abroad in the world and doing strange and terrible service in it, crimes that have never been condemned and virtues that have never been christened. Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals.

One of the more ambiguous grunts and squeals that made it into this month's OED update is the word "meep," which does quite well for itself online but was, the lexicographers inform, comes to us from H.P. Lovecraft by way of Mel Blanc's Roadrunner3 and Beaker from The Muppet Show. What does it mean?

meep n. A short, high-pitched sound.

Well, that settles that. Dictionary-editor and wordnik.com co-founder Erin McKean—America's awesomest lexicographer—commented a couple of years back on an odd item of news: a high school principal in Danvers, Massachusetts had banned the word meep—in written and spoken form—on the grounds that it was being used disruptively.

Combine a blank slate like meep and the natural tendency of English to produce new words with suffixes and affixes (and then throw in a little paronomasia, or punning) and you have plenty of scope for meep-related fun. The students (meepsters or meepers) were supposedly planning a mass-meeping, at which people might get meeped, which of course would cause meep-ruption. Meep proved to be an excellent word for expressing disapproval of the ban—"Oh, for meep's sake," "Read it and meep,"—although one commenter at the popular discussion site MetaFilter felt the story merited the stronger "Jesus mept" . . .

All that is a long way from both The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath and "Lickety-Splat," but isn't that the point?

OMG, on the other hand, is only vague as to the degree to which it violates the Third Commandment.4 Because it generally expands to "Oh My God!"5—indeed, people looking for a read-aloud option that doesn't involve just saying the letters one by one, you almost have to go into ohmigawd territory.6

But is it as simple as that? At some point, words evolve well past their original meanings. The etymologies are always interesting, but they aren't always relevant. When I consider whether to append OMG! to a link I'm sharing (nearly always in the sense of "I'm not actually saying this, but I recognize that this is the sort of context in which someone might say this"), do I need to keep having these little mental discussions as to the propriety of invoking the Lord of the Universe in my latest passing outrage or fancy?

Still. "Expressing astonishment, excitement, embarrassment, etc.": I dare you to find an instance of the phrase "Oh My God" in scripture or hymnal that doesn't do one of those three. The boundaries of what used to be called the sacred and the profane are, of course, like those of working language—far more permeable and hard to pin down than you might think at first. So mightn't OMG contain appropriate nudges towards the sacred as well? Indeed, it's tempting to start using OMG as a handy abbreviation for all of those. Who wouldn't want to type along with Charles Wesley:

'Tis mercy all, immense and free!
For, OMG, it found out me!



One of my favorite movies of the 1940s is the Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck screwball comedy Ball of Fire, written by Billy Wilder and directed by Howard Hawks. The IMDB summary runs thusly: "A group of ivory-tower lexicographers realize they need to hear how real people talk, and end up helping a beautiful singer escape from the Mob."

In a speech that sets the whole plot in motion, Cooper's Professor Bertram Potts seizes upon a workman's dialect and regales his fuddy-duddy colleagues: "Living in this house cut off from the world I've, I've lost touch. And it's inexcusable! That man talked a living language. I embalm some dead phrases." He realizes he needs to get out, "Out to collect new data. To tap the sources of slang, the major sources. The streets, the slums, the theatrical and allied professions. I know it's regrettable, this loss of time, gentlemen, but it must be done!"

All of which calls to mind what is perhaps my favorite infographic ever, printed in the introduction to Wentworth and Flexner's 1960 Dictionary of American Slang:

 
Slang


I realize it isn't intended to be a Venn diagram, though I like to suspend disbelief and wonder at just what terminology show-biz workers and general teenagers might happen to share.

But the larger point stands: the sources of slang, high and low, are not just tributaries to the great river of a common language—they are language, right and proper in their contexts, used with all the gusto and rich human messiness that flowed forth from Babel. I understand the sticklers' complaint about certain words not being appropriate for certain contexts, or just wrong.7 But the genius of the OED, as with all references that strive to be both authoritative and inclusive, is that it will, after proper consideration, take any widely-spoken and -printed comer, whatever the pedigree.

Put another way, with perhaps the most winsome wait-is-that-really-a-word of this month's OED crop: New words for the dictionary? What's not to ♥?

Notes (with apologies)

1 Not to be confused (as I did up until the writing of this very essay) with an acronym. The difference is mostly in whether you pronounce the letters individually: NATO is an acronym, UN is an initialism.

2 Which, by the way, they did.

3 Phonetically, at least.

4 Unless you're a Catholic or a Lutheran, in which case it would only violate the Third if you used it laboriously on a Sunday.

5 "Oh my gosh!" or "Oh my goodness!" aren't really in my speaking vocabulary; if they were, I would feel more at ease using OMG in earnest.

6 The charming stronger variant, ZOMG, finds the closest thing to canonical pronunciation as "zohmigod!"; the z originates either from a misplaced, misspelled pluralization—see also, LOLZ—or from the fact that fast typers sometimes hit the Z while aiming for the shift key at the start of the word.

7 Interestingly, the Canadian computer user who says he coined LOL in a chat room in the 1980s, gets kind of frustrated when people use it who aren't, in fact, Laughing Out Loud.

Topics: Arts Literature
 

Nate Barksdale is a writer and graphic designer based in Portland, Oregon. He is curator and a regular contributor to Culture-Making.com, bringing together inspiring and arresting words, images, and artifacts that highlight the goodness and challenges of creation and cultivation. In the past he's edited theology and travel guides, taken buses and trains from Cape Town to Kampala, and circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee on a bicycle. He studied the history of science at Harvard, where he wrote his honors thesis about Swahili technical dictionaries, a surprisingly useful topic. His essays for Comment have been linked by blogs like LanguageHat, The Browser, and the New York Times Idea of the Day.

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