Wordplay: The new birds

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

Imagine going out for a stroll in the woods with a friend who loves birds. You hear a bird’s song. “What’s that?” you ask. “I don’t know,” your friend says; “I don’t recognize it. Let’s see if we can get a look at it.”

So, you walk slowly and carefully in the direction of the bird, your friend with high-powered binoculars and you with a long lens on your camera. “Ah, there!” you say, spotting a long-tailed specimen with an electric blue tail and white wings with red polka dots. It sings something that reminds you of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” You capture a few frames of the little songster while your friend gets a good look with the binocs.

“Well,” you say, “what is it?” You hold up a picture on the screen on the back of your camera. Your friend is flipping furiously through the field guide. Flip. Flip flip. Flip flip flip. Is it… no… wait, could it be… no… flip flip flip.


Your friend closes the book. Whatever it is, it is not listed.

“That,” your friend says, “is not a bird.”

Whereupon the thing, which certainly looks and sounds like a bird (and not, say, an iron butterfly), takes wing and flies away, leaving a single red-and-white feather behind.

Not a bird? Well, it’s not in the field guide. How can it be a bird?

Does this sound like an irrational approach? Too rule-bound? And yet similar reasoning led scientists to disbelieve the possibility of the platypus, which seemed to cross the clear heaven-sent boundaries in their taxonomy of species. They had to see for themselves, and clearly.

But when they did, they at least admitted that it was, in fact, real. Which is more than many people will do with words they don’t recognize. There’s an entire Twitter feed (@nixicon) that simply retweets declarations that this or that word is “not a word.” Recent declared not-a-words include commenters, uncomfortableness, slayed, moaniest, dirtily, thickish, opti-blur, fugazi, instafamous, bae, baddest, e-blast, unnoticeable…

All of these were, of course, seen in the wild. And rejected. Many of them are even in the dictionary.

You know, the dictionary? Because, after all, as everyone apparently knows, there is only one dictionary, and it is the absolute legislative authority on what is and isn’t a word. Which means that when, as happens every so often, a news story comes out about new words added to “the dictionary,” some people get as upset as if the government were passing stupid laws.

Of course, we are perfectly entitled to dislike certain words. All language has an aesthetic component to it, and some words are pretty much made to be disliked. Not too many people like crows or magpies, either. But I find it odd how many people seem hostile to the appearance of new words generally on principle. Do you not enjoy using words? Can they not be delicious, seductive, playful, useful? Would a birdwatcher greet new additions to the Audubon guide with “No, no, no, no! Those are terrible birds! Those aren’t birds at all!”

Well, let’s have a look at some of the new birds, be they odd ducks or rarae aves, being added to one guide. Oxford Dictionaries Online (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary, a much more massive and slow-moving object) has yet again announced a flock of new additions. Read about them in “Adorbs new words added to OxfordDictionaries.com – WDYT?” (but maybe don’t read the comments below the article, unless you think I was just making up what I said above) and play around a bit with their “Quiz: which new word is best for you?” Here are some of the kinds of words that have made it into Oxford Online most recently:

Exuberant word modification: amazeballs, cray (as in cray-cray), adorbs

Words needed for new things: clickbait, e-cig, hexacopter, live-tweet, subtweet, track back, vape

A word for an actual newly discovered animal: olinguito

Social trends: anti-vax, binge-watch, catfish

A new look at not-so-new things: bro hug, humblebrag, mansplain, side-eye

Words that have actually been around for years: doncha, hot mess, hot mic, spit take

…And a back-formation and reanalysis: hench

So… do you like them? If not, what about them do you dislike? Do you think they don’t belong in the dictionary? If not, why not? I hope that we can at least agree that, since many people are using them and understanding them, they are in fact words.

Now, yes, yes, an important difference between birds and words is that words are made by humans, and some of them don’t stick around for very long. But words are no less real just because we are the ones making them real, and one person’s rejection of a word will probably not stop the strangers who made it current from using it. And if a word is making a big splash now, it is worthy of inclusion in a dictionary now – people will, after all, want to look it up, and UrbanDictionary.com (with its definitions written by adolescent boys) should not be their only source… and it is worth recording for future generations to find and say “Zowie!” at.

James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at sesquiotic.wordpress.com and articles at TheWeek.com.

This article was copy edited by Chris Hughes.

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