If you enjoy reading articles about the new words and phrases that make their way into dictionaries each year, you may puzzle sometimes over the selections.
Bromance? Crowdsourcing? Robocall?
“Boomerang child”? “Fist bump”? “Helicopter parent”?
Because you’re likely, like me, a word lover, your perplexity is probably linked not with the question “What do those mean?” but with the query “What took them so long?” (If you are in fact unfamiliar with any of these terms, find their definitions on Merriam-Webster’s website.)
Bromance and crowdsourcing have each been around for more than five years, and robocall is old enough to vote. “Boomerang child” and “helicopter parent” date from the 1980s, and “fist bump” is contemporary with robocall. Why, then, are they appearing in the dictionary only now?
Lexicographers are cautious folks. The Internet is brimming with jargon that hasn’t caught on and isn’t likely to, and people are always slinging slang on the street that will never make the scene. Dictionary editors study usage carefully, evaluating whether a given term has a critical mass of acceptance in writing and conversation before approving it for inclusion.
That’s logical, considering that dictionaries are descriptivist resources — meaning, they describe, rather than prescribe, usage — but they don’t admit just any word. They let society try it on for size for a while before giving it the nod (or not).
Sometimes, their confidence is unfounded, but a more pertinent issue for the writer is, these words and other neologisms are certainly valid for conversation and informal writing, but would you use them in a thesis or an academic journal or a scholarly book? Are they appropriate for marketing materials or other business communications? The mere fact that I asked these questions doesn’t mean your answers should be no, but be sure to ask yourself the appropriate question.
And just because a given term has made the team doesn’t mean it doesn’t need an introduction coming off the bench. Depending on your audience, you might want to provide at least a gloss, or a brief definition (the preceding phrase is a gloss of the word gloss), if not a more extensive discussion of the term.
English is extremely welcoming of new vocabulary — and I wouldn’t have it any other way — but remember that the language consists of various linguistic registers, and one of the responsibilities of a writer is to be aware of proper usage for the type of writing in question.