Freewheeling Expression

Do printed dictionaries still matter? I doubt most people use them much nowadays to check spellings — spellcheckers are nearly ubiquitous in word-processing software of all types. There are also myriad sources for usage examples, including many online resources that loosely refer to themselves as ‘dictionaries’, some of which are merely aggregations of ‘crowd wisdom’ and vote tabulations of what a word means. (Buyer beware 🙂 )

The intricate and time-consuming editing and typesetting demands required to produce printed dictionaries guarantee that these references will always lag somewhat behind current usage. For some people, a word isn’t a real word until it makes a debut in some official dictionary with a lexicographic seal of approval. There is mental discipline required in adhering to standards and conventions in both spelling and meaning, and standards do facilitate communication. But, as in other areas of modern life (entertainment, clothing, socializing), formality is giving way to informality, and convention to spontaneity. With respect to language, this trend is extremely evident in the world of texting and micro-blogging. For all the complaints about bad spelling, bad grammar, banal phrases — and the complaints may be warranted — there is an undeniable vibrancy and playful, unbridled freedom of expression evident in these channels of communication.  A number of strategies are in play in the coining of new English words in the digitally-driven textscape: novel word compounding (droolworthy) , substitution of one syllable with a different rhyming one to form a new meaning (gaydar), expansion of inflectional morphology (sexified), and respellings for some intended effect (partay, strategeh).  It turns out that ‘gaydar’ (one’s ability to detect the sexual orientation of new acquaintances) will be appearing in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. 🙂  The wild and wooly formulation of novel compound words is further illustrated by the rather arbitrary appearance of hyphens – I’ve seen all the following: droolworthy, drool-worthy, and drool worthy. As a compound becomes more widespread in usage, it tends to drop the hyphen and appear as a single written word. (This is not a new process – I’ve got some interesting examples of formerly hyphenated words in the writings of Henry James and Edith Wharton that are now pure unhyphenated compounds. Another blog post on this topic sometime.)

Three observations.

  • In general, linguists will tell you that spoken language is primary, and written language reflects the words and phrases that are already in the spoken language. I wonder whether this is still as true for the Age of Texting? Written discourse was a much slower process in earlier times, but nowadays it can occur about as fast as spoken discourse in many cases. And it’s interactive now — like speech. It may be becoming more of a driver of innovation and change than it was previously. Interesting to follow this, to find the evidence, if so.
  • Is the rate of linguistic innovation increasing at present, in comparison to earlier times? How do you measure such a process, if true? Words and phrases can become ‘viral’ in the highly connected world of social media. They can be quickly elevated to high status and just as quickly become long-of-tooth, un-hip. Is ‘kewl’ still cool among the subset who actually said/wrote this word?
  • There are millions of non-English speakers out there tweeting and blogging away. I would love to know whether they, too, are playing with their languages in the ways that are evident for English. If so, do they employ similar linguistic strategies of rhyming devices, extension of inflectional affixes, novel compounds. Do tone languages play with their tones in the text world?  What does hip Slavic-based wordplay look like on Twitter?  Anyone have some good examples to share?  Love to know them!
This entry was posted in Word Formation, Word Usage, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Freewheeling Expression

  1. bbear says:

    On the non-English speaker question, you’ll find some examples in Ukrainian in the article “How the internet is changing language” at

  2. achouston says:

    Thanks, BBear! I’ll take a look at this article, sounds interesting.

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