Hate new words like ‘adorbs’ all you want, but language is always changing

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If you’re freaking out about the new words added to OxfordDictionaries.com — like “adorbs,” “listicle,” “hate-watch” and “acquihire” — you’re not alone.

Most folks learn their vocabularies while growing up. Adding new words or changing the meaning of existing ones can be confusing to the human mind. Many of us pass judgment on these new words, upset about how technology is “dumbing down” the language.

This type of linguistic change — and the inevitable backlash to it — is nothing new, says Roy Mitchell, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Alaska Anchorage. “All living languages are always changing,” he told Cult of Mac over the phone. “Even some dead ones change,” he added, noting that Neo-Latin is simply the addition of Greek roots to a long-dead Roman lexicon.

You don’t have to like it. You just have to accept that it’s happening. And that there’s nothing you can do about it.

The usage of words and their meanings change all the time. The word “happy,” for instance, originally meant “lucky” or “wise.”

The Oxford Dictionary’s online database tracks these constant linguistic changes via several databases and the Internet itself, finding words that increase in use over time. The folks at Oxford Dictionaries then compile the most frequently used words and add them to their online database every three months. That’s how fast our language is changing.

Mitchell agrees that things are moving much more quickly these days. Before the advent of high-tech devices and always-on Internet access, changes in meaning came much more slowly. Many words and usages would change locally, and take generations to propagate through the populations of speakers of a specific language.

“I suspect the rate of vocabulary change has been increasing,” said Mitchell, “due to our language-based technologies.” We can now use words with their new meanings and have thousands of people — no longer restricted to local communities — see and adopt these changes as their own.

While older folks might call out their younger compatriots on what they see as sloppy talk and poor language skills, most changes in meaning don’t result from a lack of intelligence. Mitchell points out that while he can feel that the language his students use is “loose, frivolous and messy,” it’s more that the words chosen are simply not the ones he was taught to use when he grew up in the ’60s and ’70s.

So, if the list of terms — which adds words like “side-boob,” “baller” and “douchebaggery” — seems a bit ridiculous, it actually makes all kinds of sense from a linguistic perspective.

Why shouldn’t we document changes to our lexicon as they happen? Chances are that many of these words will go out of fashion at some point, and new words and meanings will be added. Having a record of the changes is the point.

“The meaning of words has always been arbitrary,” said Mitchell. “You don’t personally have to like it.”

And that’s totally amazeballs.

Hate new words like ‘adorbs’ all you want, but language is always changing

  • Andy Shorrock

    God. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change.

  • sigzero

    Sure…but it is still “dumbing down” the language.

  • Bangali

    Adorbs is NOT a word..it’s a shortening of a word..how can that be construed as a new word? stuff like Selfie etc..are ok, but adorbs?!

  • http://www.feastofbeast.com DJBabyBuster

    People are free to use these bs “new” words, and I am free to question their intelligence.

    • Andrew

      Exactly! :)

  • Andrew

    Language is always changing? That is not language; that is uneducated talk.

  • http://enemyofjoy.com/ Enemy of Joy

    Before you disdain any dumb-sounding new words or expressions, bear in mind that most of what we consider proper, educated English today was once considered vulgar and uneducated. Anyone today who said “I builded a house” would be laughed at, but at one time that was “proper,” and only an idiot would say “I built a house.” No educated person in the 1800s would say “the first two people in line,” but rather “the two first people in line.”

    Or to bring it closer to the present day, if you scoff at people who use “literally” improperly, you’d better stop saying “really” or “truly” improperly, since those words were once synonymous with “literally.”

    It’s a mistake to think of language in terms of proper or improper, correct or incorrect. There is no “correct,” but only what’s currently in fashion. Language doesn’t get “dumbed down” by new words or phrases, because whatever “smart” language you’re comparing them to was the “dumb” language of an earlier era.

About the author

Rob LeFebvreAnchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer and editor Rob LeFebvre has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148Apps, Creative Screenwriting, Shelf-Awareness, VentureBeat, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to find Rob on Twitter @roblef, and send him a cookie once in a while; he'll really appreciate it.

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